June 14, 2019KR Reviews

Sad People Everywhere All The Time: On Congratulations, Who Are You Again? By Harrison Scott Key

New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 2018. 368 pages. $15.99.

Thurber Prize winner Harrison Scott Key’s second memoir explores the process of writing his moderately successful first memoir, The World’s Largest Man. Presumably, his third memoir will be on the process of writing his second, and his fourth on his third, and so on, until the end of time or literature. Congratulations is a celebrity memoir without the trappings of actual celebrity yoking it to reality. Much in the style of Steve Martin’s Born Standing Up, Scott Key presents his early artistic efforts through a comedic lens, building to his inevitable, if fictitious, superstardom. Steve Martin, though, is actually famous, and he takes himself a little more seriously on the page than Scott Key, which gives an idea of this book’s silliness quotient. It follows a loose chronology from Scott Key’s childhood through his first, and only, book tour. While most writers avoid such a memoir until they have achieved sustained literary notoriety, or, say, massive sales, by making his second book about the build to his first, Scott Key bakes comedic need into the heart of Congratulations, Who Are You Again? “I think it’s important to get it all on paper now,” he writes, “before I become even more famous and start wearing an ascot and walking around with an expensive cat.” Fortunately for readers, this hilarious and touching memoir is largely unsullied by his forthcoming, massive fame.

Scott Key plays with the brazenness of his premise by employing celebrity memoir cliche, like opening with the question, “What is a dream?” And he’s primarily concerned with American literary dreams, which he describes as “the answer of a calling to eschew the more common pursuits of personal peace and affluence in order to do something beautiful and exceedingly difficult with your life, such as writing a book that shames your family. . . . ” And so his second book follows “one man making his American dream real, while simultaneously almost immolating everything important in his life.” That is, it’s about the personal toll of the years-long effort to write a decent book.

After beginning a job as a university fundraiser, a position he took for financial security, Scott Key reached an emotional impasse. “I don’t want to be overly dramatic and tell you I was suicidal,” he writes, “but I’ll say this: I started to do that thing that all depressed people do where you start to think, Hey, if I die, at least it will be a change of scenery.” One day, noticing a wrinkle in his pants before work, he collapsed on the floor and wept. He asserts that this “is not a thing I do. I do lots of odd things, but I am not a floor weeper.” But he’s at his best when describing such melancholic moments, using humor to bend reality in ways that invite readers into the funny emotional reality of his dream.

When Scott Key finally started understanding how his favorite comedy worked, after years of bouncing between genres and searching for a writing voice, he “began to note a kind of weird expressionistic warping of facts in funny writing, the way Van Gogh painted cypresses. . . . he just makes them look to your eyes the way they looked to his bewildered heart, like dark windswept flame.” Reality here isn’t quite warped enough to be impressionistic, but like Van Gogh’s paintings, much of Congratulations explores the everyday business of melancholy. Scott Key ascribes to the

Sad People Everywhere All the Time Theory of Comedy, which states that most of the world ignores the sadness with anger or pills or fun parties or Netflix or lots and lots of yoga or Internet trolling, while others are burdened and privileged to grapple with sadness obliquely via music or photography or other forms or art.

Or, in this case, with a comic memoir about becoming a writer.

Like storyteller comedians Mike Birbiglia and Hannah Gadsby, whose long personal anecdotes propel their acts, Scott Key is a master of using personal stories to build to gut-busting one liners, effectively blending core techniques of memoir and comedy. I feel very certain,” he writes, “that every memoir is a performance around the dinner table.” And while Congratulations is certainly a performance, it’s more a heartfelt stand-up act about the writing life than it is a dramatic monologue.

Some of Scott Key’s descriptions whisper directly into my book-loving, amateur-writing, joke-telling, depressive librarian soul. Artists who have spent significant parts of their lives working jobs unrelated to their dreams of making something beautiful will likely connect with the descriptions of drinking and schmoozing with potential university funders about how to monetize science. He writes, “the drinking helped me look like I was listening when what I was really trying to do was quiet the wounded kitten of my sadness who lived in the place behind my eyes.” It’s a funny, creepy, and sad way of saying that he drank because he was depressed. Deft placement of similarly funny-sad lines puncture the balloon of hot air with which he occasionally pretends to lift the book. They’re delivered with masterful tragicomic timing, though they don’t come often enough during the long sections in which he’s on tour.

A more true celebrity, Justin Timberlake, recently released a book mostly comprised of pictures of himself on tour. It’s something that fans will devour, but Scott Key is no Timberlake, and his lack of true celebrity status means that his movements from one bookstore to another hold little intrinsic interest for most readers. Thankfully, the tour ends and the hilarious internal journey of self discovery continues. A memoir in extended nonfiction jokes, Congratulations, Who Are You Again? is a compelling and uplifting examination of how one person has warped his life into a perceptive work of art.

Jason Hess
Jason Hess lives with his wife, the writer Jillian Weiss, in Portland, Oregon, where he works in the public library. His fiction has appeared in December Magazine. More of his writing can be found in Camas: The Nature of the West, Whitefish Review, and Los Angeles Review.