Boyhood, manhood, father-hood, Southerner-hood, and hunter-hood—these are the touchstones of The World’s Largest Man, a debut memoir about growing up in rural Mississippi from Harrison Scott Key, a Georgia writing professor and frequent Oxford American contributor. Yes, a rather specific experience is being chronicled here. However, Key’s lively, joke-addled prose allowed me, a city gal from the North—one who has never set foot near a tree stand, no less—to fully inhabit this book’s world, one that’s as painful as it is sidesplitting.
Key comes by his comedy honestly—his background includes stints in standup and humor column-writing. For the most part, his memoir centers around the man who inspired his sense of humor: his father. Country-boy Pop is large and in charge, passionate about “outdoor skills” such as fighting, firearms, and contact sports, and has, according to Key, “the emotional tenderness of a Soviet farm tractor.” Pop is ruggedly charming, funny as they come, and also physically abusive. He reads no books and has zero filter—women, he thinks, should be subservient and sit “over there.” He also believes boys become men only once they kill their first deer.
Therein lies this book’s central theme: the complexities of masculinity. Young Key, with his love of books and crafts and grocery shopping with his sweet mother, has no interest in killing, nor athletics, nor, seemingly, anything that might make his father proud. However, as he grows up and moves out of rural Mississippi, courts his wife, and starts a family, he begins to view his father in a new light. He realizes, in fact, for better or worse, how much he has in common with his old man. Grown-up Key may be a doctor of English, but he’s fiercely protective of his family, and prone to stocking his city home with guns. He also has a lot to learn about how to raise and diaper babies—in fact, Key’s own marriage is ultimately threatened, largely due to his Pop-like ways.
The humor here is quick, but rarely light. No, the author doesn’t rose-wash any his life, but rather lays it all out, with consistent wit and sucker-punch delivery. The result is a memoir that’s wise and reflective, but that does not serve to apologize for the ways and traditions of its often misguided characters. By the end, Key has finally convinced Pop to leave his beloved countryside to live near his grandchildren in the city. Soon thereafter, however, his father meets an untimely end, leaving Key to reconcile the complex and fierce love he has for the man who raised him.
Key, as I learned during a recent phone conversation, is pretty damn funny off the page, too. He was also generous enough to reveal those forces that led him into the memoir world, the challenges of splicing heaviness with humor, and the trials that accompany the choice to write about hot buttons such as race.
Your have an MFA in playwriting, and a ton of experience in stand-up and comedy writing. How did you find yourself penning a memoir?
At some point during grad school, I realized I wanted to write prose, rather than plays. I would try short stories, and comic novels, but I would always eventually come back to all the funny stories I had told, largely about my dad and my family, back when I was writing monologues and doing stand-up. For a long time, I was circling around what form they would take—I didn’t know if it’d be a collection of funny essays, or a memoir, or what. But you know, you follow the humor to the truth, and you write stories, and sort of see where the hottest trails pick up, where the best ones lead—I had plenty of stories that were not ultimately included. And finally, in 2011, it hit me that the project was, at its core, about my life. I got an agent in 2013, and she really helped me see that it was also about the South, and about my dad. So I just started writing it like that.
Had your father already passed away at that point?
No, he only died in May of 2014, when my book was almost done—I’d been writing it for technically seven years at that point. My dad knew I was writing a memoir about our family, but to him it wasn’t a book about himself. Before he died, he’d even read some of the stories; or rather, my mom had read them to him.
I actually think that because I have the emotional death scene at the end, the book became that much more centered around my father. Before he died, I suppose the last chapter was going to have a similar feel—it was going to be about our reconciliation, and my realization that he was just being a dad, and I was just being a son, and that’s how life is. But then when he died, that added a depth and gravity to it all. I’ve found in talking to readers that the death really altered their perception of the whole book. A lot of that last chapter actually doubled as my eulogy for him. It was terrible—you’re writing this book about the relationship with your dad, and then all of a sudden he dies. But I really wanted the eulogy and the last chapters to still be funny, because after all, he was such a funny guy.
Do you have any favorite memoirists?
I usually read fiction, but I did start looking to memoirs once I figured out I was writing one. I’d always hated the word memoir—it felt like the Lifetime Movie channel of the book store. But of course, many of them are just great stories. JoAnn Beard’s Boys of My Youth was really informative. I also enjoyed Nabokov’s memoir [Speak, Memory]. But more than straight memoir, general creative nonfiction helped me model my book. John Jeremiah Sullivan’s essays, for instance, are just fantastic, and I love all Michael Herr’s stuff for Rolling Stone, and Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff. They’re all first-person pieces about historical things, that use really interesting language. It makes it feel almost like a movie. And I guess I also wanted to write something real, but that felt like a movie, that carried people away.
How did your history in theater and comedy influence your writing process?
It took me ten years to figure out how to write funny the way I could talk funny. Doing improv or standup or making people laugh at a party or an open-mic night—that kind of humor came naturally to me, but writing funny was so hard. I struggled with that balance between seriousness and silliness—I didn’t want to write myself into a corner, where I could only be silly or lighthearted. I felt like there had to be a way to have a legitimate mind and still make readers laugh, to say earnestly true things, and not just ironically true things. I want to say something important to the world, but I also didn’t want to offend people. I had to be funny, but then be able to go dark and say things like, “Oh, by the way, my dad was a racist.”
You were pretty candid regarding the racism you witnessed, growing up in rural Mississippi. What were the biggest challenges there?
I knew I couldn’t write a book about these people and this place without addressing race. But I also knew I needed to not turn readers off—because they can’t come to hate my dad, and then be expected to stay with the rest of the book. And of course, I can’t hate him in the book. So I leaned on self-deprecation to some extent, attacking the self-righteousness of myself as a little white boy who really wants to be friends with the black boys at school, who naively assumes that it’ll just be fine, only to find out that of course my dad didn’t want me to have them over, and that they didn’t really want to be friends with me anyways. And as long as you attack yourself, you can attack other people. So I also wrote about my dad coaching baseball at Piney Woods [a traditionally black boarding school in Mississippi] and really connecting with the kids who didn’t have dads. I was trying to find ways to show how complex race relations, and racism, really are. Really, it was a fun challenge—my attitude from the outset was, “If I’m going to write a story about being surrounded by racists, and about getting abused, then I’m gonna make it funny!”
You also address some of the more misogynistic aspects of rural culture, describing a scene in which the women of your family served the men supper, and then went off to eat whatever was left when the men had had their fill, and writing “I grew up believing that this was the way of the world, that women did things for men, and that men let them. And perhaps this really is true, in places like Iran.”
I knew it would be difficult to address the misogyny—as well as race and the abuse I experienced at the hand of my father as a child. A lot of my readers are educated and female, and I get different reactions in different regions. A well-educated woman from the South reads it, and tends to give a knowing nod. But I know that in other parts of the country, it’s been met with outrage. However, a lot of people have thanked me for acknowledging that this stuff happens. One of my goals at the outset was to talk about it—not to try to make the reader like or forgive the racists or the misogynists, but to show that, “This is the whole person—and many times, they have a lot of other qualities, some good. It’s very complex.” I’m not trying to defend any of it, nor to defend my own reaction to it. But ultimately, the book did piss some people off, and to me, that was one of its greatest triumphs. I wanted to get laughs while dealing with serious issues.