The World’s Largest Man
I read a book!
Years ago, this would not have been a noteworthy development in my personal life. As a child, I was a voracious reader, powering through book after book. And then jobs and college and teaching came along, and they took up my time, and I don’t read for pleasure like I used to.
That’s changing this year, right? At the beginning of the year, I declared my intentions to publish a book review every month, and now it’s June and…this is my first book review.
It’s important to set big goals for yourself, even if you fall short of them.
Harrison Scott Key spent his early childhood in Memphis, and this memoir opens with this explanation of the south and storytellers and it paints this image of slow, quiet Mississippi. He gives some background on his family, and how his parents ended up together, and about telling his daughters stories about growing up in Mississippi. It’s setting the stage for being a storyteller about Mississippi.
The first Mississippi story starts with this bit, which sums up the experience of explaining that you live in Mississippi to people who have not lived in Mississippi.
This funny thing happens when people ask where I’m from, especially when I’m at academic conferences, where people are so often from uninteresting places.
“Mississippi.” I say.
“Oh, wow!” they say.
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.
“So,” they say. “What’s Mississippi really like?”
He moves on to writing about his father, and about his family abandoning Memphis for a more rural lifestyle in Mississippi. Key’s father is a living, breathing stereotype of a rural southern man. He’s interested in hunting and sports, but not sports like running or soccer, manly sports like football and baseball.
The family moves to Mississippi, and Key’s father is intent on creating a farm. Key and his brother are roped into working to create this farm with him. When Key goes to school in Mississippi, his peers are a world apart from his classmates in Memphis – they are bigger and tougher than him, they know how to hunt, they sport injuries from outdoors behavior and questionable judgement.
In Mississippi, Key’s father takes him and his older brother hunting frequently. His brother takes to it, Key does not. Personally, I have never been hunting and have zero intention to ever go hunting, but the passages about it are entertaining and resonate on a level of failure to live up to expectations.
That theme of failure to live up to expectations flows throughout the book, breaking at a key moment – Key’s father is the coach of a peewee football team, and takes Key, who is in high school at the time, to play in a game. Key crushes it. He crushes it against children who are much smaller than him, but crushes it nonetheless.
The book loses steam when focus shifts from Key’s childhood in Mississippi to adulthood, when he is married and struggling in his relationship, when he is a father who is sometimes not as present as his wife would like. It loses steam because we transition from a focus on those unique stories about his dad to more ubiquitous stories about struggling in adulthood in the way we all sometimes struggle in adulthood.
Was this book great? The first two thirds were. The last third? I read it but I didn’t love it.