Book Review - In the shadow of 'The World's Largest Man'

Harrison Scott Key's memoir on his father will tickle your funny bone

Harrison Scott Key has released his humorous book about his father, The World's Largest Man, at a time in which the literary world is resistant to what it views as a recent glut of memoirs, especially those by "young" authors. Just last month, the New York Times debated the question "Should there be a minimum age for writing a memoir?" It's a fair inquiry, and one that raises some interesting points about meaningful life experience. But for Key, who turns 40 this summer, the answer is simply "no."

Key, who splits his time as an English professor at Savannah College of Art and Design and contributing editor for the Oxford American, pokes a couple of holes into the argument that memoirs are strictly reserved for elder statesmen. Whereas some critics view memoirs as a manifestation of the kind of narcissism that young people seem to demonstrate on Twitter and Facebook, Key says that the real problem is that these books are just dull. "Now I think it's fine to hate terrible books, no matter what they are," he says. "But the issue is not really about young people writing memoirs. It's about people who are boring and terrible writers writing memoirs."

The other problem is that some critics confuse the distinction between an autobiography and a memoir, which Key calls the difference between a pie and a slice. In The World's Largest Man, that slice is Key's relationship with his father, who moved the family from Memphis to rural Mississippi when Key was in the fourth grade in the hopes of raising his son on hunting, farming, and football.

But Key says that the book wasn't always meant to be a memoir about his father. "I wanted to write a frigging hilarious book," he says. "I tried writing all sorts of hilarious books, and strangely, they weren't hilarious." Inspiration finally struck when someone suggested that Key pen a story as humorous as the ones that he told about his father. "I've been telling stories about my dad forever because he's just a crazy, odd, strange, hilarious individual," he says. "So that really started me on this journey."

Indeed, the stories that Key tells about his father paint him as a crazy, odd, strange, and hilarious figure, rendering the memoir as undeniably unique. In "The Wishbone," Key writes about the time that his father, who coached the football team, desperately needed an 11th player and made a last-minute decision to put Key in the game against their rival. While Key acknowledges that playing sports was more than common for boys when he was growing up, what makes this story one of a kind is that his father illicitly substituted his teenage son into a children's football game. Key writes, "I was in high school, and Pop coached a peewee team. Let me say that again: He coached a team full of ten- and eleven-year-old fatlings, whose soft necks had trouble holding up a helmet. My neck, along with the rest of me, was fully formed. I was fourteen."

In the story, Key recounts standing out among his teammates in size and stature, steamrolling his opponents, and experiencing an alternate future in which he hadn't quit the football team when he was younger. "I couldn't help thinking that he'd wanted me to play, to feel what it was like to be him, at least for one game," Key writes. "To him, it wasn't cheating. It was fathering."

While "The Wishbone" is certainly unparalleled, the story also illustrates the stark differences between Key and his father, which is what makes the memoir so relatable, too. Growing up as a boy who enjoyed reading and playing chess, Key was somewhat of an enigma to his father. But in the second half of the book, he tells stories about getting married and also becoming a father, which leads him to understand and appreciate his own father better while graciously avoiding any platitudes about sons maturing into a version of their old man. Although the book's two halves seem disparate at first, Key ties them together in the final chapter, which is far more heartfelt than any other part of the memoir.

If the overall goal of The World's Largest Man is to be funny, then Key pulls it off with howling success. But the book also serves as a record of what it was like to grow up in rural Mississippi, to have a father who challenges comprehension, and to figure him out only once it's too late. In The World's Largest Man, there is an honest story of self-discovery between the punch lines.

The World's Largest Man by Harrison Scott Key. HarperCollins. $26.99. 352 pp.

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