F rom Memphis to Mississippi: It isn’t that far to go. But back in the early 1980s and in the mind of a boy named Harrison Scott Key, it was too far — and too much. “We lived in Memphis, but Pop insisted we play baseball just over the state line in Mississippi, where the game retained its purer, more barbaric qualities,” Key recalls in his collection of autobiographical sketches, The World’s Largest Man (Harper). “My rural teammates had fascinating lives. Many of them lived in trailers and other sorts of homes capable of being rolled down a hill, which had a real sense of adventure to it, while others had metal teeth and chewed tobacco. Here we were, barely eight years old, and one of them was already an uncle, while another teammate came to practice one day carrying a giant dirty baby.” Key took the infant to be his teammate’s sister. But Key was wrong. “I wish I had a little sister,” Key said.
“Shoot, this here’s my aunt,” the teammate replied.
Things went downhill from there, because shortly after this scene, the author’s family didn’t just visit Mississippi for little-league baseball. The family moved to rural Mississippi. The reason? “Pop” didn’t like Memphis, the city where Key was born. Memphis, for one thing, had sidewalks, and Key’s father didn’t care for sidewalks. The schools were too clean; the hospitals, too well-equipped. The city was no place to rear a son, the kind of son Pop wanted. According to Pop’s way of thinking:
“And Godalmighty, all the boys did [in Memphis] was ride bikes and play video games and sit around getting sissified. If you wanted to toughen up your kid, teach him about knives and woods and whatnot, your only resource was the goddang Boy Scouts.”
Pop didn’t care for the Boy Scouts either. Scouts wore neckerchiefs, which Pop likened to a lady’s scarf. (“It ain’t right.”) They played “camp-out” in some city park. And what was with this favorite Scout pastime: a “pine-box derby”?
No, Pop moved his family — his third wife (who taught grade school), a son named Bird (actually Mom’s son from a previous marriage to Pop’s sister’s former husband), and Key (with his fragile, “bookish bones”) to Mississippi, where Key would have a proper, manly upbringing.
He’d learn, under Pop’s direction, about fistfights and the finer points of religious worship (“In Memphis, you went to church to hear about the dangers of premarital sex. In Mississippi … you could go to church to have it.”) He would learn to stop worrying over the live lobsters he saw for sale in grocery stores — the lobsters that Key felt sorry for, prayed for. In Mississippi, he’d be introduced to gunpowder and camouflage. He would, in short, become a son his formidable father could be proud of and not the kind of boy who knits pot holders, clips coupons, and decorates school bulletin boards (all of which Key enjoyed doing).
T he World’s Largest Man is Key’s story, from boyhood in Mississippi to adulthood in Georgia, where he teaches English at the Savannah College of Art and Design. But it’s Pop’s story too. Never mind that for heightened comic effect — Key writes regularly as a humor columnist for The Oxford American , in addition to being a travel writer and essayist — the author has got to be exaggerating here and there. Or at least let’s hope so. Several things, though, you can believe: Today, Key is married to an admirable woman (though the couple once talked of divorce), and he’s the kind father of three daughters. He’s also lived to tell the family tales, when in the pages of The World’s Largest Man , you’ll be surprised he survived at all, because when it came to beatings, Pop didn’t go in for simple spankings: “A man who merely spanked his children was probably a florist. No, Pop whipped us like a Mexican grandmother beats a rug, with stoic resolve, dispassionately, purposefully, constantly, and sometimes like a Mexican grandmother who smokes PCP and rules a cartel. It was [Pop’s] understanding that boys who were not beaten in a spirit of paternal affection ran the risk of growing up to become happy, overconfident handbag designers.”
What was Key to do when he’d finally had enough of Pop’s spirit of paternal affection? He escaped — in one scene in The World’s Largest Man , to the top of the family’s clothes dryer. But by that time, he’d made another kind of escape: into books and a set of World Books.
“I blame my mother,” Key writes, because it was Key’s mother who introduced him to “the perverse habit of reading through the gateway drug of encyclopedias.”
Later chapters in Key’s memoir take place in Savannah, where we read of his wife’s first pregnancy, which is scary enough, but her labor pains can’t hold a candle to the chaos created by the couple’s redneck neighbors — and “not the good kind who grow their own flowers and poison their weeds, but the kind who poison their flowers and grow their own weed.”
Key’s Pop, though, is more than a pain. He’s a force of nature as mysterious to the boy as the boy was a mystery (and disappointment?) to his father.
The author describes Pop as having the “emotional tenderness of a Soviet farm tractor,” of being a man whose only luxury was the “occasional heart attack,” and who once told his son that “being accidentally shot in the face was just a part of growing up in the country.”
Pop was a “fortress,” a “volcano,” an “Everest” — with an oversized head and pair of big, meaty hands to match. Household chores? Yes, Pop would occasionally vacuum a rug, “although what he did wasn’t so much vacuuming as attempting to hurt the carpet’s feelings.”
He wasn’t much for the company of other men either. According to Pop, friends were “things meant for women and children, as were holidays and happiness. All a man needed was a gun and a woodstove and maybe, if things got bad, a towel for the blood.” No wonder Key would hear from classmates: “Yo deddy [sic] crazy.”
Did Key love Pop? For the longest time, no, and Key didn’t pretend to love him, though he did try to satisfy him by playing football and baseball and by participating in that rite of passage known in Mississippi as Doe Day. But in his father’s closing years, Key did his best to care for the old man, to understand him, to make peace with him, as he came to make peace with Mississippi too.
“If there was anything I learned out in the country, it was that the things that can kill you can make you alive.”
Key’s father taught him that hard lesson. A boy named Tom taught Key another one.
One day the two were doing farm work, and Tom needed Key’s help with a distressed cow that was ready to give birth. Tom had a hand (literally) in delivering the calf; Key, for his part, couldn’t even keep a gate closed. But the sight of the newborn has stayed with him over the decades. As he writes:
“I fell more in love with Mississippi on that day, seeing what it could do, what could happen there, all the beauty and life that could come from nothing, so violently, suddenly. And I think it was on that day that I began to love its people, too, the Toms of this wild place, who could reach deep into God’s animals and pull forth wonders unbidden, such as other animals. I miss that.”
What’s more but most importantly: “I miss those people.”