Harrison Scott Key’s dreams

Is the desire for greatness a temptation or a vocation?

Harrison Scott Key’s 2015 memoir, The World’s Largest Man, is the funniest memoir I have ever read, surpassing even David Sedaris’s Me Talk Pretty One Day and Tina Fey’s Bossy­pants. It re­counts a Mississippi childhood in which Key felt out of place in his home, particularly in relationship to his father, a “man better suited to living in a remote frontier wilderness of the nineteenth century than contemporary America, with all its progressive ideas, and paved roads, and lack of armed duels.” If Key already thought of himself as an outsider with respect to his family, his first book made his something of a pariah among lepers. But it also launched him into modest literary stardom.

His new book records the evolution of his dream to become a “great Ameri­can writer.” Congratulations, Who Are You Again? could be marketed as a how-to guide—how to live a good life, how to write a good book, how to capture the American dream. Yet Key’s narrative overturns every impulse to read it as a step-by-step manual. It’s a book about chasing dreams, and yet the author re­peatedly shows that we cannot write our own story.

The book begins with a quote from Cinderella, the model for all 21st-century dreamers who grew up watching the Disney film in which she sings, “A dream is a wish your heart makes.” Key reminds us that Cinderella “sings these words to a family of birds who wear kerchiefs and don’t appear to have the power of language, revealing the first important thing you need to know about dreamers, which is, most of them need psychiatric evaluation.” Dreaming seems crazy. But Key was raised in a generation that prizes dreams and the dream life above exercise of the “faithful presence,” to use James Davison Hunter’s phrase, or what Eugene Peterson calls the “long, slow obedience in the same direction.” Only after decades of dreaming does Key realize that the ordinary is often more beautiful than any pretense of the extraordinary.