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

Faulkner & Justice: Two Short Story Collections

“Smoke” in Knight’s Gambit

“Barn Burning” in Selected Short Stories

Is justice achievable? Or is justice an ideal that we aspire to but find contentedness with partial completion?

Justice is one of those big, atmospheric words like love and hate, good and evil, which we use colloquially to describe otherwise normal occurrences in daily life. Our sense of justice is part of the human condition; it is cross-cultural and flows freely through language barriers. Justice is rooted in the human heart, which—as William Faulkner said in his 1949 Nobel Prize in Literature acceptance speech—is “in conflict with itself.” Only such subjects dwelling in the human heart are “worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.”

I was already a third of the way through law school when I learned that literature could help define this ideal we call justice. Reading case law taught me to read actively, but not every judge writes with the eloquence of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and judicial opinions are too narrow to define justice in a larger sense. Alternatively, literature is timeless, and helps us cope with problems for which there are no immediate solutions.

As a young boy, Faulkner attended courtroom proceedings and traveled around with his uncle, who was a practicing attorney. Faulkner, although not a lawyer, was a brilliant observer of the human condition and wrote about justice in many settings. Some great examples are found in a couple of Faulkner’s short story collections.

The Knight’s Gambit (Vintage, 2011) collection features six mystery stories based on Gavin Stevens, the Harvard-educated prosecuting attorney in Yoknapatawpha County. “Smoke” was the first of the six Gavin Stevens stories, originally published in Harper’s in 1932, about two brothers and a murder arising out of a land dispute. The narrator describes his uncle, Gavin Stevens, as:

“a loose-jointed man with a mop of untidy iron-gray hair, who could discuss Einstein with college professors and who spent whole afternoons among the squatting men against the walls of country stores, talking to them in their idiom.”

In “Smoke,” the young narrator reports on various opinions of justice in the community. Before Judge Dukinfield is murdered in the story, the trial audience sits for an “overlong time” while the judge validates the authenticity of “a simple enough document.” But the young narrator waits with deferential patience, as he explains:

“[Judge Dukinfield] was the one man among us who believed that justice is fifty per cent legal knowledge and fifty per cent unhaste and confidence in himself and in God…. So we watched him without impatience, knowing that what he finally did would be right, not because he did it, but because he would not permit himself or anyone else to do anything until it was right.”

The circumstances of Judge Dukinfield’s murder are what allow Gavin Stevens to see the brothers’ guilt. A skilled litigator, Stevens lures the brothers into confession while examining them on the witness stand. During questioning, the narrator emphasizes the county attorney’s thoughts on justice in a parenthetical aside:

“Ah…. But isn’t justice always unfair? Isn’t it always composed of injustice and luck and platitudes in unequal parts?”

Justice is the subject of other stories in Knight’s Gambit about Yoknapatawpha characters, townspeople and rural recluses, with Gavin Stevens leading the investigations and prosecutions. However, “Barn Burning” is perhaps one of Faulkner’s most famous short stories—first published in Harper’s in 1939 and now found in Faulkner’s Selected Short Stories (Modern Library, 2012)—that serves as a prequel to the “Snopes Trilogy” (The Hamlet; The Town; The Mansion).

“Barn Burning” is a story about justice and injustice, retribution, economic inequality, and fathers and sons. We see justice—and one’s reaction to injustice—less in the opening cheese-smelling courtroom scene, presided over by the Justice of the Peace, than we do in the actions of Abner Snopes, a sharecropper who is forced to move his family for the twelfth time in ten years. Abner is a man of “wolflike independence,” “courage,” and “ferocious conviction.” His habit is building small fires, neat and easy to control, but, in response to injustice, he shares the flame with the landowner’s barn and other property. Faulkner reveals through the thoughts of Abner’s son, Colonel Sartoris “Sarty” Snopes, that:

“the element of fire spoke to some deep mainspring of his father’s being, as the element of steel or of powder spoke to other men, as the one weapon for the preservation of integrity, else breath were not worth breathing, and hence to be regarded with respect and used with discretion.”

When the Snopes family arrives at their dilapidated tenant house, Abner goes to speak to the man who will “begin tomorrow owning me body and soul for the next eight months.” He takes Sarty with him through a grove of oaks and cedars to a fence of honeysuckles and Cherokee roses enclosing the landowner’s brick-pillared home. Inside, Abner ruins a hundred-dollar imported rug by stomping horse manure on it and, thus, becomes further indebted to the landowner. Yet again, Sarty must decide among competing senses of justice—justice under the law or justice for blood, that of his father.

“Barn Burning” was the first of Faulkner’s works that taught me to look deeper into the fictional characters’ problems for help in answering my own, for help in considering societal questions posed in the newspapers and law school courses. Knight’s Gambit was a suggestion of Joe DeSalvo, the owner of Faulkner House Books, and although I do not agree with Gavin Stevens that justice is always unfair, I appreciate his honesty. Whether in literature or in the law, we need the reminder: justice is often an unequal composition of injustice, luck, and platitudes.

-Alex B. Johnson, Faulkner House Books

Faulkner Society And Louisiana State Museum To Host Multi-Author Reception

The Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society is proud to announce that four of the Gold Medal winners selected in the William Faulkner – William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition have had their new novels published. The Society will join hands with the Louisiana State Museum to honor Frederick Barton, author of In the Wake of the Flagship; Moira Crone, author of The Ice Garden, Jennifer Steil, author of The Ambassador’s Wife, and J. Ryan Stradal, author of Kitchens of the Great Midwest.

The event will take place Sunday, August 9, 2015, from 2:30 to 4:30 p. m. at The Cabildo, the historic venue where the Louisiana Purchase was signed, located on Jackson Square.

All of their new novels are receiving exceptional reviews and are wonderful choices for your summer reading. All of the authors are interesting speakers and have had diverse and interesting careers. Each author will discuss his or her new work, read briefly from the work, and take questions from the audience.  There will be opportunities to socialize before and after the program, which will start at 3:00 p. m.  Their books will be available for purchase and signing. To reserve your books in advance, please call Faulkner House Books with credit card information at (504) 524-2940.

We hope you will joint us as we lift a glass to our exciting array of competition winners.
The event, which will feature complimentary refreshments, is free and open to the
public. We ask that you RSVP to faulkhouse@aol.com so that we can be prepared with food and drink.

Background on each of the authors and their work follows.

For additional information, Contact:
Rosemary James, faulkhouse@aol.com

AUTHOR BIOS

Rick PhotoFrederick Barton won the Faulkner Society’s Gold Medal for Best Novel for his fourth novel, A House Divided, which examined the contemporary American soul with uncommon insight.  Barton’s new novel, In the Wake of the Flagship, is a blistering satire chronicling one man’s battle against bureaucracy and corruption. Basketball coach Richard Janus has found himself interim rector of Urban University, a woefully underfunded public college in Choctaw, Alkansea. After Hurricane Hosea devastates the city, Janus must go to war with the unscrupulous heads of Alkansea’s flagship university, facing down massive layoffs and rabid football fans. The absurdity of the American experience is on full display here as Metacom, the legendary Indian sachem, narrates Janus’s struggle, recounting academic intrigue and hypocrisy with searing humor.  Pulitzer Prize winnerRichard Ford says of the book: “Barton has a lot of important human business on his mind in this exceptional novel: race, history, the South, hurricanes, laughter, love, and much more. In the Wake of the Flagship is wonderfully inventive, and addictive to read.“  In addition to his achievements as a fiction writer, which include publication of numerous short stories, Barton is an award-winning essayist, journalist, and film critic Barton founded the Creative Writing Workshop at the University of New Orleans where he served as Director for many years. He continues to teach in the program and lives in New Orleans, LA.

 

Moira_Crone_ SHAWL PORTRAIT-p19ro3se4ds671tvt8hari613rpMoira Crone, who is winner of the Faulkner Society’s Gold Medals for both Novella and Short Story, has published three novels and three books of stories, including What Gets Into Us. Her work appears in Oxford American,Triquarterly, Habitus, and New Orleans Review. Her stories have been selected forNew Stories From The South, five times. In 2009 she received the Robert Penn Warren Award for Fiction from the Southern Fellowship of Writers for her body of work. Moira Crone is a fable maker with a musical ear, a plentitude of nerve, and an epic heart for her beleaguered, if often witty, characters. Her previous novel, The Not Yet, is a foray into the not too distant future and what the social structure of New Orleans might easily become, as well as a warning of what lies ahead for New Orleans if the issues, of global warming, rising sea levels, and coastal erosion are not addressed head-on now. It was published in 2012 by Lavender Ink. Her new novel, The Ice Garden, was first a novella by the same name. It was this work which captured the Society’s Gold Medal for Best Novella. Ms. Crone later expanded it to novel length and it was  released by Carolina Wren Press recently. Among the creators and also long time director of the MFA program at LSU, Ms. Crone, also an accomplished painter, lives in New Orleans with her husband, bestselling poet and non-fiction writer Rodger Kamenetz.

 

jennifer-steilJennifer Steil, an award-winning American writer, journalist, and actor was first runner-up for the Faulkner Society’s Gold Medal for Best Novel in Progress in 2012 for her work Chiaroscuro and then won the Gold Medal for the Best Novel in 2013 for the completed work, which has just been published by Doubleday under the new title, The Ambassador’s Wife. A harrowing story from a real-life diplomat’s wife of the kidnapping of the wife of an ambassador in an Arab country. Ms. Steil also is author of The Woman Who Fell From the Sky, An American Woman’s Adventures in the Oldest City on Earth. Published by Broadway Books/Random House), it is a memoir of her experiences as editor of the Yemen Observer newspaper in Sana’a. The book received accolades in The New York Times, Newsweek, and the Sydney Morning Herald. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune chose it as one of their best travel books of 2010, and Elle magazine awarded it their Readers’ Prize. It has been published in the US, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Turkey, and Poland.  Theatre was her first love. She has a bachelor’s degree in theatre from Oberlin College and worked for four years as a professional actor in Seattle, becoming increasingly frustrated with the limited roles available to women and the dearth of female voices in the theatre world at large. She began dedicating more time to her writing, eventually completing an MFA in fiction at Sarah Lawrence College and a second master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Since 1997, she has worked as a reporter, writer, and editor for newspapers and magazines in the U.S. and abroad. Recent work includes a long piece on Yemen in the World Policy Journal, a Yemen piece for the German paper Die Welt, and several London stories for the Washington Times. After spending four years in Yemen and two years in London, she has relocated to La Paz, Bolivia, where she is lives with her husband, a diplomat, and young daughter.

J.Ryan.Straydel_Novel Winner1J. Ryan Stradal won the 2014 Gold Medal for Best Novel for his highly entertaining debut novel, Kitchens of the Great Midwest. The story is about a definitive Midwestern dinner, with each chapter telling the stories behind the ingredients—and the folks that hunted, grew, gathered, or stole them—as they find their way to a once-in-a-lifetime five-course meal. Similar to Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge in structure, every chapter, including the final dinner itself, is tied together by the rise to infamy of a young chef named Margaret Thorvald. The orphaned daughter of a Swedish cook and a sommelier, Margaret becomes the mysterious chef behind the most exclusive pop-up supper club in the world, an object of romantic affection, and an elusive celebrity that one character spends nearly a decade trying to meet.

The novel was acquired last year, put on the fast track, and has just been released by Viking.  Stradal’s writing has appeared in Hobart, The Rattling Wall, The Rumpus, Joyland, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among other places. He’s the editor of the 2014 California Prose Directory anthology, associate editor atTrop Magazine, and co-fiction editor at The Nervous Breakdown. A native of Minnesota, he’s lived in Los Angeles for 16 years, but still misses “pine trees, freshwater fish, shamelessly heavy food, and Midwesterners, the nicest people in the world.”

William Faulkner on Marriage

William Faulkner, 27, still a bachelor, residing on the ground floor of 624 Pirate’s Alley (now Faulkner House Books) offered his views on “What is the Matter with Marriage?” in a $10.00 contest sponsored by the New Orleans Item-Tribune. Apparently he won. His response was published in the newspaper on April 4, 1925. The complete uncorrected text of the article follows:

 

Marriage Is Not At Fault, Writer Asserts; Fault Lies With Those Who Are Wed

Writer Gives Views

[photo]

Poet, philosopher, student of life, WILLIAM FAULKNER, says that passion is a fire which quickly burns itself out. Love is enduring, he believes, a fuel that feeds a never-dying fire.

     “What is the Matter with Marriage?”

All kinds of answers have been coming in from people who have ideas as widely varied on the subject as it would seem possible to have them.

Last Sunday, the first article was published in the Item-Tribune asking the question, “What is the Matter with Marriage?” It was not Barbara Brooks’ idea that marriage is a failure. But it was her idea to get [sic] offering a prize of $10 for the best letter of not more than 250 words telling just what it is that is causing so many marriages to go the way they shouldn’t. Answers must be in the Item-Tribune office not later than April 13.

Hundreds of letters from men and women who were not making a success of married life have been received by Barbara Brooks. Rather than getting better, the situation has been growing worse. The letters have been increasing.

The following article by William Faulkner is teeming with interest. Marriage, he says, is all right, but the trouble lies with some of those who enter into it.

Mr. Faulkner has been in New Orleans for some time writing books of poetry. His first book “The Marble Faun” is fresh from the press. He has a thorough understanding of life, and its complexities, and is therefore qualified to speak.

“What is the matter with marriage?” I do not think there is anything the matter with marriage. The trouble is with the parties thereto. Man invariable gains unhappiness when he goes into a thing for the sole purpose of getting something. To take what he has at hand and to create from it his heart’s desires is the thing. Men and women forget that the better the food, the quicker the indigestion.

Two men or two women—forming a partnership, always remember that the other has weaknesses, and by taking into account the fallibility of mankind, they gain success and happiness. But so many men and women when they marry seem to ignore the fact that both must keep clearly in mind that thing which they wish to create, to attain, and so work for it together and with tolerance of each other.

None of us will believe that our sorrows are ever brought about by ourselves. We all think that the world owes us happiness; and when we do not get it, we cast the blame upon that person nearest to us.

The first frenzy of passion, of intimacy of mind and body, is never love. That is only the surf through which one must go to reach the calm sea of real love and peace and contentedness. Breakers may be fun, but you cannot sail safely through breakers into port. And surely married people do want to reach some port together—some haven from which to look backward down golden years when mutual tolerance has removed some of the rough places and time has blotted out the rest.

If people would but remember that passion is a fire which burns itself out, but that love is a fuel which feeds its never-dying fire, there would be no unhappy marriages.

There is nothing wrong with marriage. If there were, man would have invented something else to take its place.

The 2015 Faulkner-Wisdom Competition

There is still over a month left to submit your creative work to the 2015 William Faulkner-William Wisdom Competition, sponsored by the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society! We accept work in categories from Novel-in-Progress to Poetry, Essay to Short Story, Novella to Nonfiction Book, and more! Prizes include money, gold medals, and publication in the Double Dealer. We are so excited to read your work. Read the guidelines and details here, and send us your best!

The 2015 William Faulkner-William Wisdom Literary Competition!

Enter the annual Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society literary contest, the William Faulkner-William Wisdom Competition! Cash prizes from $750-$7500, as well as publication, a gold medal, and free travel and accommodation to attend the 2015 Words & Music Festival in New Orleans! Categories include novel, short story, essay, novel in progress, novella, poetry, and short story by a high schooler. Don’t miss this fantastic opportunity! Postmarked entry form deadline is May 1, 2015. Complete details here. We can’t wait to read what you have for us this year!