A key grip, Dustin Beall Smith explains in this award-winning debut memoir, is the person on a film set who supervises the rigging of lights, set wall construction, dolly shots, stunt preparation, and more. Smith worked in the film industry throughout the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s. For him, “fame by association”—with iconic stars including Sly Stallone, Susan Sarandon, and Robert De Niro—was just one of the seductive drugs fueling his high-octane days on the set.
The intertwined stories in Key Grip resurrect memories of how his father’s impossibly ordered life became a goad for Smith’s own reckless journey to manhood. Its trajectory includes a stint as a pioneering sport-parachuting instructor in the late 1950s—a young man’s dream job that taught Smith how to hide sheer animal fear behind male bravado. Much later, as a committed writer and unredeemed seeker in his fifties, Smith lights out cross-country for what turns out to be a brave, existentially failed—and very funny—attempt at a Lakota vision quest.
Beautifully told, reminiscent of both Robert Bly and Ian Frazier, Key Grip is a fascinating record of the fault lines of one man’s life.
DUSTIN BEALL SMITH’s Key Grip won the 2007 Bakeless Prize for nonfiction, awarded by the Middlebury College Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and judged by Terry Tempest Williams. Smith has lived in New York City for over forty years and teaches writing at Gettysburg College.