Key Grip by Dustin Beall Smith

Dustin Beall Smith came recommended for his contribution to You. That essay, called “being [t]here,” didn’t particularly grab me (put it up next to Kitchen for being amorphous or abstract, at least too much so for my perhaps overly literal mind). But this book did.

Key Grip is a memoir in essays, in reverse chronological order. The first essay makes up fully a third of the book, followed by eleven shorter ones. The narrator is a risk-taker, a thrill-seeker, with self-destructive behaviors. The book is about those behaviors, about mourning the death of his father, and about art: the lifelong struggle to become a writer, and the decades along the way spent in service to another art form, as a key grip in the movie business. Smith is expert at engaging storytelling, such that the craft appears effortless or invisible. As a classmate once said, the apparently effortless writing is the hardest to achieve. But for me, the most interesting element in this collection was its reverse-chronological organization. That’s what I annotated, for school.

The extra-long opening essay, “Starting at the Bottom Again,” is a hilarious account of a mature Smith (age 57) traveling cross-country with a near stranger, to go on a Lakota vision quest. It is not only hilarious, but also gripping and pathos-ridden, gloriously told. If I have a complaint, it is that we left this absorbing world and did not return to it. I expected to continue chronologically from this point, and perhaps to get sequel vision quests, as Smith’s Lakota spiritual guide suggests to him.

Instead, we go backwards in time, seeing Smith suffer the loss of his father, work as a key grip, get dissipated and wild with drugs etc., become a skydiving instructor, return to childhood. Many of these essays are excellent in their own right. But I remained a little baffled by the departure from that first essay, “Starting.” I think we all generally expect chronological order when we read. We know how to deal with disjointed jumpings around in time; but to start at the end, so to speak, can be a little disorienting.

Nevertheless, once I paid attention to what this backwards-order was doing, I decided I like the way meaning, and characterization of the protagonist, build. For one thing, this is very like how we get to know people in real life: we meet today, in the present, and then (if we get that far) we fill in backstory. We can never know a new acquaintance’s past if we weren’t there for it, but we can listen to the stories.

Smith is a very fine storyteller, and these are amusing, sensational stories he has to tell, always with a note of sadness if not regret. I do recommend his memoir.

Rating: 7 jumps.

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