A Review of
Congratulations, Who Are You Again?:
Harrison Scott Key
Paperback: Harper Perennial, 2018.
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Reviewed by Geoffrey Sheehy
I’ve always admired humorists. In high school I’d open our Sunday newspaper directly to the Lifestyle section, forsaking Sports and Comics long enough to read Dave Barry. In an attempt to spread the joy I would read him aloud, but every time I did my eyes would spot the funny lines before my voice could say them, and I’d break into high pitch squeaks and tears. My listeners would laugh too, but not at Barry. They’d laugh at me, out of fear, because I appeared to be having a seizure.
It is therefore no surprise that Harrison Scott Key has become one of my favorite writers. His first book, The World’s Largest Man, exploits his tense relationship with his father for our amusement. I have read aloud to my students the first two chapters of that book–published as “The Boy Who Got Stuck in a Tree” at Oxford American–and it took a half-dozen readings before I got through it without students reaching for their 911 apps.
Key’s second memoir, Congratulations, Who Are You Again?, reveals to us the all-consuming dream that the first book represents: the dream “to write a funny book.” (51) And it turns out that writing a funny book is a lot like writing any other book. It involves a ton of reading. It requires practice and skill. It necessitates disciplined attention to the project. And it demands sacrifice, particularly from the writer’s spouse, who will be raising the writer’s children while the writer loiters in coffee shops for hours every day.
But “loiter” is the barista’s word; the writer would say “flagellates himself,” because writing a funny book is hard to do. Key spends years hammering away at his dream with no prospects or income from writing, and I admit I am grateful for this low period of Key’s life, because some of the funniest passages in the book arise from his work as a fundraiser for a medical school. Being inside his head as he engages alumni physicians is the best spot at the party:
I found a cluster, populated by three men, serious-seeming. They spoke of their families, their boats, the threat of rain. I hovered in their cluster without drawing attention to myself. What do I say? Do I introduce myself?
Hi, I’m Harrison Scott Key, and my job is to take your money and use it for important educational purposes, such as the open bar.
Through an auspicious change of job, Key manages both to feed his family and to become a better writer, discovering how theme and questions drive story (a simple but well-articulated idea I’ve already repeated to my own students) and finally, after a decade of determined head-banging, breaking through with a small passage:
These lines felt exactly like what I had been trying to create for the entirety of my adult life. This was going to be a chapter in my book, I decided. No, more than that: This was the book–the tone, themes, everything was in the DNA of this passage. I still didn’t know what the book was about, exactly, but I knew the answer was somewhere in these one hundred words. . . .
“Eff me!” I said, as I wrote. It was good, and it’s weird, knowing it’s good, after spending the whole of your life knowing it’s bad.
And this, finally, was the beginning of success, the creation of a not-terrible paragraph he’d be able to sell to Oxford American for $450, “enough money . . . to fly my wife to Bermuda, although she’d have to fly alone, and she’d be without lodgings or food when she arrived.”
But beyond the difficulty and trials, Key shows the reader of Congratulations that writing a funny book is to tell the truth slant, to reveal the truth by not telling the truth. So it is that his wife, looking at an early version of his first book, finds certain sections “a little too true.” And as Key considers her reaction, he realizes she is right and adjusts the story:
I softened the edges, where I could, which actually made the book more humane and funnier, which blew my mind. There she went again, softening me. My lovely non-reader wife turned out to be an amazing reader and editor.
As Key’s wife saw, humor can skewer with alarming force, with Ambrose Bierce ferocity, but that sharp edge doesn’t work for all circumstances. There is good reason we don’t sharpen our butter knives, and Key’s discovery reveals the power of slant–that a softened edge, a less true telling, can be more effective for being more humane, and as a bonus, a humane edge can even be funnier than the sharp knife of the cold, hard truth.
It’s this softness I like best in Key’s work. I admit I cried (from sadness) at the end of The World’s Largest Man, moved not only by Harrison’s tenderness toward his hard father but by the similarities of that man to my own flawed dad–a man who was as much a mess as the rest of us but who had tried and in his own way succeeded at being there for me.
And again, in Congratulations, Key uses his humor to head somewhere, to share an ounce of wisdom where it might be found, discovering true ideas amidst his pursuit of a dream, like “Do what you love for a living, and you’ll work every day of your life, and you’ll never stop working, even when you should.”
In this he’s less like Dave Barry, whose pursuit is the gag, and more like Mark Twain, who famously declared that he was preaching and “should have written the sermon just the same, whether any humor applied for admission or not.”
But I shouldn’t reach too far. Key is still the clown, spotting his fellow clowns at a school assembly for his children and recognizing, “that would have been me, a lifetime ago, or yesterday. I could respect this behavior. Sometimes, comedy’s all you got.”
At a recent writers’ conference I attended, poet Aaron Belz explained to a group of students that poetry and comedy are uniquely human endeavors (Seemingly to emphasize the point that night at a house-reading, the host’s dog slept through Aaron’s poetry while all the people laughed.) Belz further contends that comedy, in part, exposes our ridiculousness and is deeply Christian for doing so.
So to laugh like this, then, is to recognize both our transcendent beauty as creatures (Made in the image of God! A little lower than the angels!) and our utter foolishness (Duped by a serpent; All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God). And to approach humor like Harrison Scott Key is to embrace both of these realities. It is to approach a difficult task with the slanted truth that uncovers wisdom.
And induces seizures.