“When you hear of a friend’s marriage breaking up,” writes Memphis native Harrison Scott Key in the first chapter of How to Stay Married: The Most Insane Love Story Ever Told, “it’s always like, ‘Really? No way. What happened?’” The humorous memoir details his wife’s infidelity, the near total collapse of their marriage, and the difficult path they follow in the ensuing years to save it. Readers might reasonably expect Key’s telling of “what happened,” including the crisis of his own Christian faith that arises from the event, to be about as funny as a cancer diagnosis.
Readers would be wrong.
Practically every page presents laugh-out-loud lines about Key, his wife, Lauren — who figures heroically in his previous comic memoirs, The World’s Largest Man and Congratulations, Who Are You Again? — and her secret boyfriend. “He has a decorative seashell collection and can’t even grow a beard,” Key writes early on of the boyfriend. “I am not making this up.” By and large, he does not seem to be making up any of the tragicomedy that follows, although he does change the names of his three daughters, the boyfriend, and a few ancillary characters. (In a disclaimer at the front to the book, Key quips that he “can provide real names for a small fee.”)
Shortly after learning of Lauren’s affair, Harrison has to give a college lecture entitled, “Making Sad Things Funny.” He successfully does this throughout How to Stay Married, yet sadness creeps in. As Tolstoy observed nearly 150 years ago, “Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” and learning, layer by funny layer, of the unhappiness of the Key household makes for an engrossing read. As with many unhappy relationships, seeds of marital distrust had been planted in childhood. In excavating underlying causes of Lauren’s affair, Key provides lessons toward the blithe how-to promised by the title. Most are no-brainers that could be summarized as “do occasional laundry,” “help with the babies,” and “know when to seek counseling.”
Key faces his many failings as a husband — in one chapter listing them alphabetically, from ASSFACE to ZINGER. (N is for “ I sleep NAKED” and O is for “I OVERSHARE, for example, by telling the world I sleep naked.”) He takes pains to make clear that his book is not a vindictive hit job on Lauren, that she not only approved it but is given the penultimate chapter to summarize the affair, the breakup, and the reconciliation from her perspective.
“Being married to a funny person is hard,” she writes. “We constantly picked on each other.” She frankly describes meeting and gradually falling for “Chad” — the alias both stick to in the book — and feeling like her chapter title, “A Whore in Church.” Her directness — simple, honest, and lacking a joke every third line — contrasts with the rest of the book in a way that provides a heartbreaking depth to her husband’s comic riffs.
Writers have, of course, long explored the thin separation between comedy and tragedy. Mark Twain famously wrote, “Inside of the dullest exterior there is a drama, a comedy, and a tragedy.” Updike asked, “Is not the decisive difference between comedy and tragedy that tragedy denies us another chance?” And Mel Brooks explained: “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.”
How to Stay Married is dimpled with one open sewer after another, yet from the beginning readers are reminded that another chance is coming. When it arrives, Key reflects:
All the yesterdays described in this book feel like a million years in the past, each terrible flesh-eating moment now a fossil buried in memory — fossils that only occasionally get reanimated and try to eat us again.
Key, who holds an M.F.A. as a playwright, once tried as a grad student to rewrite Othello into a comedy called Goats and Monkeys. In oversharing his own marital tragedy, despite the “Taylor Swiftness of it all,” he delivers a truly Shakespearian resolution, one grounded in a mystery “that can only be explained by the most powerful and ridiculous force in the universe: wondrous, impossible, hilarious love.”
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