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Review: Key's 'World's Largest Man' a hilarious memoir of Southern fatherhood

Male deer watching the young.
Published Sep. 16, 2015

If David Sedaris and Roy Blount Jr. had a love child, that county clerk in Kentucky probably still wouldn't give them a marriage license. But that baby might grow up to be as funny as Harrison Scott Key.

Key's memoir, The World's Largest Man, is a splendid exercise in Southern storytelling about growing up in rural Mississippi with a father who was, he writes, "a man better suited to living in a remote frontier wilderness than contemporary America, with all its complexities and progressive ideas and paved roads and lack of armed duels. Despite all the hitting, I knew, he was a good man, and he taught me many things: How to fight and work and cheat and pray to Jesus about it, how to kill things with guns and knives and, if necessary, with hammers."

The book is also a smart, heartfelt consideration of the meaning of manhood in the 21st century — and the first book I've read in a while that's funny enough to make me snort coffee through my nose. Several times.

Key's Pop is a towering figure in more ways than one, a supremely confident man who "spent his life crushing the souls of other men with his violent charm, me included." Pop has very clear ideas about how to raise his son, prominent among them the importance of hunting, starting when Key is in fifth grade and Pop hands him a 12-gauge shotgun and takes him on a dove hunt.

Key hates killing things, especially when he discovers the reality of hunting — "the thing killed from afar is not killed and must be killed again, at close range, where you can see the opal wetness of its eyes seeing you back." But his small town is not a place where he can reveal such sympathies, not when his compatriots include "a boy with a dent in his head deep enough to catch rainwater" that is the result, he's told casually, as if it happens to everyone, of a hatchet fight.

Key's efforts to fulfill his father's command that he shoot a deer turn into a comic epic. He's also trying to catch up with his older half brother, Bird, who despite having no biological tie to Pop is much more like the man, and a born hunter. Bird keeps reminding Key he'll have to drink his first deer's blood, based not on folklore but on "perhaps the most important film of our youth: Red Dawn, a coming-of-age tale about how Patrick Swayze fights communism with his hair."

Even as a youngster, though, Key knows his own tastes are more in line with his schoolteacher mother's. He'd much rather grocery shop with her: "I hunted every item with the skill of a Choctaw huntsman with a taste for lists and couponing: Chef Boyardee, Pop-Tarts, Fritos, Hostess Frosted Donettes." And, even more, he loves to go with her to the library, where, "like Kafka says will happen, the sea inside me unfroze."

So, despite Pop's best efforts and a boyhood filled with hunting, football and a wide range of other hair-raisingly perilous, testosterone-fueled pursuits, Key grows up to earn a Ph.D. in playwriting and work as a writing professor at the Savannah College of Art and Design and sometime standup comic.

Some of the book's later chapters deal hilariously with Key's marriage, the birth of his first child (in which I sincerely hope he is exaggerating for comic effect his wife's three-day unmedicated labor) and a no-holds-barred account of toilet training three stairstep toddlers.

Even in those chapters, Pop is a presence, because Key is always conscious of measuring himself against his father's ideas of manhood even though he has, in many ways, rejected them. Once he's a father himself, he doesn't turn into Pop, but he grows to understand him more deeply, and to realize that Pop can surprise even him.

The World's Largest Man walks a fine line, showing us the humor and violence and love that make up Key's relationship to his father without turning to either ridicule or sentimentality. Key pokes fun at his family and his heritage, but he's even more willing to laugh at himself — and even his readers. When he tells people in academic circles he's from Mississippi, he writes, "I can tell they've never seen a real live racist before, or at the very least someone who's related to a racist, or has seen one in the wild. It's exciting for them. They want to tweet it. They want to write a memoir about it. ...

"I do believe in the power of Jesus and rifles. I also believe in the power of NPR and the scientific method. It is not easy explaining all this to educated people at cocktail parties, so instead I tell them that it was basically just like Faulkner described it."

Contact Colette Bancroft at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

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