The Funniest Book of 2015: The World’s Largest Man by Harrison Scott Key

This Thanksgiving, I gave thanks for a growing family, good friends, and The World’s Largest Man: A Memoir (HarperCollins, 2015) by Harrison Scott Key.

The World’s Largest Man is the funniest book I’ve ever read. Also, it’s the only book that I’ve read almost entirely aloud, my wife and I only pausing to let uncontrollable laughter subside before reading the passage over again.
HSK World's Largest Man

Harrison Scott Key, The World’s Largest Man: A Memoir. HarperCollins, 2015. Signed, $26.99.

Key’s humor and creative nonfiction has appeared in The Best American Travel Writing, Image, McSweeney’s, The New York Times, Outside, Reader’s Digest, and Salon. He is an editor at Oxford American where he writes a column entitled, “Big Chief Tablet”—a reference to Ignatius J. Reilly’s notes in A Confederacy of Dunces.

This first book pulls up a chair for Key at the table of Southern humor, a supper club still led by the prolific author and speaker, Roy Blount, Jr. The World’s Largest Man is a book-length love letter to his complicated and imposing, yet caring, father. It’s a collection of personal stories from childhood in rural Mississippi to adulthood in Savannah, all sewn together with threads of evolving relationships between Key and his parents and, in the later chapters, Key’s wife and daughters. However, there is nothing that I can say to enhance Key’s voice, so below is a sampling of what he brings to the table.

Key joined us in October for the 2015 Words & Music conference and signed a case of his books. Come buy one, and laugh as you read it aloud to your family over the holidays.

The first chapter begins with a context for storytelling:

They say the South is full of storytellers, but I am unconvinced. It seems more accurate to say that it is full of people who are very, very tired. At least this was my childhood experience is Mississippi, where there was very little to do but shoot things or get them pregnant. After a full day of killing and fornicating, it was only natural that everyone grew weary. So we sat around. Some would sit and nap, others would sit and drink. Frequently, there was drinking and then napping. The pious would read their Bibles, while their children would find a shady spot to know one another biblically, or perhaps give birth to a child from a previous knowing. Eventually, though, all the sitting led to talking, which supposedly led to all the stories, or at least the beginnings of stories.

In my family, we were unable to finish any. Until now.

His answer to the question, “What’s Mississippi really like?”

I can tell what they really want to ask is, What was it like to grow up around crazy people who believe that whatever can’t be shot should be baptized? But they are afraid to ask, because they are not yet sure if I am one of those people.

I am.

Kind of.

Not really.

Sometimes.

I do believe in the power of Jesus and rifles, but to keep things interesting, 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, meaning that my state is too impoverished to afford punctuation, that I have seen children go without a comma for years, that I’ve seen some families save their whole lives for a semicolon.

While deer hunting with his brother, Bird:

I did what my brother said and climbed down, because while he may have lacked the ability to conjugate verbs, he would’ve known how to kill those verbs if they had been running through the forest. He was sixteen now, and he’d already killed his first, and his second, and third. Actually there was no telling how many he he’d killed. He obeyed so few hunting laws, largely as a result of his believing that he had Native American blood, which he believed absolved him from all state and federal hunting and drug statutes.

“Cherokee didn’t need no fucking hunting license,” he’d say.

What was the Trail of Tears like, I wanted to ask. Had that been hard, watching all his people die of the measles? But also, I wanted to believe. It was a story our grandmother had told us about being descended from a Cherokee chieftain, a version of the same fairy tale told to most poor whites and blacks across the South, a way of making us feel better about genocide and gambling. I’d heard that such blood could earn me a college scholarship, which I believed was my passage out of this alien land, while Bird used this story to explain his preternatural desire to learn things about animals by smelling their feces.”

As for hunting, Key prefers the grocery store:

Borden’s was our ice cream, and it came in a bucket the size of an above ground pool. How could hunting deer ever compare to hunting vanilla ice cream, which is generally docile and will let you pour syrup on it without running away?

His father’s beliefs:

My father believed a lot of crazy things: that men with earrings were queer, that the pope got to pick the Notre Dame football coach, that we couldn’t possibly have made all those expensive calls on the telephone bill. He would sit in his recliner and review the bill like some Old Testament scholar with a gift for high blood pressure….

Pop especially hated the Boy Scouts….

His only real belief about urban design was that houses should be far enough apart to let a man stand in his own front yard and relieve himself in relative privacy….

In my father’s house, having indoor pets was always a sign of moral decay, assumed to be clear evidence of mental illness and possibly drug addiction. If you wanted to get an animal into his house, you had to tell my father that you intended to eat it.

About learning to be a husband and a father:

If there is anything I learned out in the country, it was that the things that can kill you make you alive, and that you are never more alive than when you are getting beaten by your father because your mother thought you were dead.

And while to the casual observer I may not have turned out much like my father, I came to see in the first years of my marriage that I have proudly carried on this tradition of scoffing at women who are concerned for my safety, as I did with the woman I would marry….

Once we were married, she became even more like my mother, which I made sure not to tell her….

What I didn’t say was, I had very important reasons for throwing my child into the ceiling fan, and those reasons were that I wanted to see what would happen. This was my responsibility, as a man, to endanger the people I love in the service of knowledge that seems important at the time.

She asked me to stop it and all sorts of other silly things, such as to not let the baby stand on the counter and to keep the fireworks away from their faces and to lock the doors.

Lock the doors! Ridiculous!

-Alex B. Johnson, Faulkner House Books

Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King

Ever since reading Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King, I’ve been an avid fan and collector of his work; I’ve read all of his books, some more than once. (Wasn’t it Somerset Maugham who said, “You truly read a book only the second time”?)

For two years after opening Faulkner House Books, we periodically published a newsletter. In one I wrote a retrospective review of Henderson and sent a copy of it to Saul Bellow with a letter thanking him for all the pleasure his writing had given me for years. Now, with the bookstore, I looked forward to sharing my pleasure with my customers. A few months later, I received his reply. Both follow.

My Review of Henderson

My ardent admiration for Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King, a novel I have read often, is also a consciously expressed admission. I’m partial to Don Quixote tales where usually an aging idealist dissatisfied with things as they are seeks to change the world into something more noble. Alas, such a hero must ultimately confront reality and be either defeated or transformed and returned safely to the community of man.

And so, millionaire pig-farmer Eugene Henderson, like Don Quixote in his mid-fifties, tired of the chaos in his life, “mad as a horsefly on a window pane,” goes to Africa to quell the voice within him that repeats, “I want, I want, I want.” He also hopes to exchange what “civilization” has taught him for the more fundamental truths, he believes, primitive people still possess.

With his companion, the native Romilayu, he visits two tribes, the Arnewi and the Wariri. Both visits end disastrously. He blows up the Arnewi’s cistern while trying to rid it of an infestation of frogs. With the Wariri, he is unwittingly maneuvered into becoming the Rain King and the successor to Dahfu, their king. Dahfu is a former medical student forced to return home when his father died. He is out of favor with his elders for keeping a pet lioness in violation of tribal tradition. He befriends Henderson and insists that he can find “noble possibilities” by imitating the lioness, the way she walks and how she roars. Not long after Henderson becomes the Rain King, Dahfu is killed by another lion, perhaps not accidentally, on an obligatory hunt. Henderson succeeds to the Wariri throne, is imprisoned, but escapes and returns to the United States.

Since Henderson always believed that truth comes in blows, he is, by Dahfu’s death, redeemed, “called from non-existence into existence.” He has been moved, in his own words, “from states that I myself make into states that are of themselves. Like if I stopped making such a noise all the time, I might hear something nice. I might hear a bird.”

Henderson the Rain King was published in 1959, 18 years before Saul Bellow won the Nobel Prize for literature. It is truly a masterpiece, delightfully humorous and invariably intelligent. It is a novel for poets; a worthy scion of Cervantes’ Don Quixote.

January 26, 1993

Saul Bellow’s Response

Dear Mr. De Salvo,

It makes me happy to hear from members of what I consider to be an elite of readers, namely those who admire Henderson the Rain King. I am especially fond of, “I might hear a bird.” So, it’s turnabout and fair play. I write a book, you send me a kind note.

With Best Wishes,

Saul Bellow

You should infer from Bellow’s letter that Henderson was a favorite of his, even though he was critiqued for moving away from his urban Jewish theme; also for being uninformed about Africa and for using a minstrel-style Southern dialect for the natives. The novel is so thoughtful, so intelligent and funny, and Henderson the character is such a marvelous creation, that the criticisms pale.

Good reading to you.

Joe DeSalvo

Calvino’s Cosmicomics

photoItalo Calvino. The Complete Cosmicomics. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014. $24.00. Call (504) 524-2940 or visit us to purchase a copy!

This beautiful new edition of Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics brings together all of the Cosmicomics for the first time in one place, including a few stories that have never before been translated into English. If you have never read these stories before, you are in for a treat: Calvino’s vision of a primordial universe as playground for his protagonist Qfwfq is transportative. We follow Qfwfq and his friends from the Big Bang through to the creation of life on earth and evolution. One of the most beautiful stories is the first, “The Distance of the Moon,” in which Qfwfq remembers when the moon passed so close to earth that he and his companions would take a boat out to the sea and climb a ladder to its surface. He tells us,

    On those nights the water was very calm, so silvery it looked like mercury,
    and the fish in it, violet-coloured, unable to resist the Moon’s attraction,   
    rose to the surface, all of them, and so did the octopuses and the saffron
    medusas. There was always a flight of tiny creatures–little crabs, squid, and
    even some weeds, light and filmy, and coral plants–that broke from the
    sea and ended up on the Moon, hanging down from that lime-white ceiling,
    or else they stayed in midair, a phosphorescent swarm we had to drive off,
    waving banana leaves at them.
  
Calvino’s prose is where poetry and science mingle, and these stories, collected for the first time in their entirety, tell not only of the creation of the universe, but of love and loss. These tales are richly imagined, and the stunning images of the early universe as envisioned by Calvino will stay with you for a long, long time.

Denise Levertov’s Uncompromising Moral Vision

denise levertov

Denise Levertov, The Collected Poems of Denise Levertov.  New Directions, 2013. $49.95. Call (504)-524-2940 to order or visit us in Pirate’s Alley!

Though she died in 1997, it wasn’t until last year that we were finally graced with Denise Levertov’s complete collected works. This is a beautiful volume, stunning even before it is opened to reveal the life’s work of one of 20th century America’s most important poets. The poems’ chronological arrangement allows us to observe the evolution of Levertov’s poetic voice over a period of more than 60 years.

If you are unfamiliar with Levertov’s less known works, this is the perfect opportunity to delve into her canon. She is a poet whose entire oeuvre demands reading and rereading. Poetry was her highest truth, as she writes in the poem A Cloak, from Relearning the Alphabet:

             breathing in

            my life

            breathing out

            poems.

Levertov’s poetry is characterized by her precision: reality sparkles under her guidance, coming into sharp focus to reveal beauty that we might otherwise have overlooked. Her early collections (The Double Image, Here and Now, Overland to the Islands) are pure lyric, concerned deeply with the perennial subjects of love and death, marriage and war. An early poem, 1940’s Listening to Distant Guns, foreshadows some of her major poetic concerns:

            That low pulsation in the east is war:

            No bell now breaks the evening’s silent dream.

            The bloodless clarity of evening’s sky

            Betrays no whisper of the battle scream.

Levertov approaches her topics with a realist’s eye for the background noise. She brings the war into focus here, for example, by dwelling on the places where war seems nonexistent, the negative spaces of the horror, and she brings into chilling relief the powerlessness of human suffering to touch every part of the world.

In Here and Now, Levertov brings her uncompromising vision to New Orleans’ own Jackson Square (home of Faulkner House Books!) She writes,

            Bravo! the brave sunshine.

            A triangle of green green contains

            the sleek and various pigeons

            the starving inventors and all

            who sit on benches in the morning,

            to sun tenacious hopes…

She focuses on the smaller details of the place: not the looming cathedral, but the hopes of the “starving” people who try to make a living in the square. And yet the sun is still bright, the pigeons still varied; though sorrow is an inextricable part of her poetic world, it does not color all it touches. And isn’t this the most unsettling thing of all, to know that though we suffer, the sun shines on?

In With Eyes at the Back of our Heads, we see a poetic shift in which Levertov becomes more concerned with the role of the poet in her society. The book begins with a translation of a Toltec codice entitled The Artist, in which the true creator is praised. And in the poem The Charge, she writes,

Returning

 

                        to all the unsaid

            all the lost living untranslated

            in any sense,

            and the dead

           unrecognized, celebrated

           only in dreams that die by morning

 

           is a mourning or ghostwalking only.

                    You must make, said music…

For Levertov, it becomes increasingly important that her poetic and political lives overlap and fuse. Art is a way for her to respond productively to the political upheaval of the 60’s and 70’s.

In 1971’s To Stay Alive, Levertov writes wrenchingly of the death of her sister and the war in Vietnam. These poems are darker than her early work, and rightly so. Her “political” poems demonstrate perhaps most clearly her humanity as well as her poetic abilities. In Life at War, she writes,

          We are the humans, men who can make;

          whose language imagines mercy,

lovingkindness we have believed one another

          mirrored forms of a God we felt as good—

         who do these acts, who convince ourselves

         it is necessary; these acts are done

        to our own flesh; burned human flesh

        is smelling in Vietnam as I write.

She resists always the dehumanization of war, forcing her reader to recognize that though the sun still shines, we cannot escape the legacy of the suffering we enact upon one another. Humans are great artists; we are also murderers, and this is the cold truth of which she reminds us.

Her later work shifts again, to what Eavan Boland calls in her introduction to the collection “a fully realized moral vision.” Many of her poems from the 80’s onward, informed by her late conversion to Christianity, survey the beauty of their world and seek its goodness. These lines from the poem Salvation, from Sands of the Well, strike me as particularly transcendent:

             this unhoped-for pardon will once more permit

                                                the stream to offer itself at last

            to the lake, the lake will accept it, take it

                                                into itself,

            the stream restored will become pure lake.

Levertov’s Collected Poems is a treasure chest waiting to be searched. Her poetic vision is always clear, striking, incisive. Whether she is writing about nature or war, marriage or death, she never wavers from her commitment to artistic excellence. She brings to mind the idea of the poet as prophet, as she was surely a voice of her time.