Newsday, May 25, 2003
In his breezy yet earnest 1990 book, “What’s That Pig Outdoors?: A Memoir of Deafness” (Penguin, $8.95, paper), Henry Kisor guides readers from his fourth year, when a meningitic fever destroyed his auditory nerves, through his long career at the Chicago Sun-Times. The printing room had been newspapers’ traditional niche for deaf people, but, nudged by a family friend, Kisor forged a path as a journalist, proving himself on the copy desk before taking over the Sun-Times’ books section, where his weekly column still appears.
Kisor, a professional success by any standard, attributes his achievements to his parents’ insistence on an obscure pedagogical method that encouraged deaf children to read at an early age. With this head start, which fostered a “deep love of language for its own sake,” and with supplementary lessons in lip-reading, Kisor held his own in mainstream public school classes and won a scholarship to a private college. Kisor never learned sign language and obviously takes pride in having steered clear of deaf institutions (although he tries to downplay it to avoid inflaming the contentious internal politics of deaf society). Still, his relations with others have always been tempered by the imperfect science of lip-reading, which Kisor presents with a measure of humor. The book’s title refers to his misapprehension of his son, who asks about a “big loud noise” made by his farting father.
While deafness is Kisor’s organizing principle, he wants his affliction to be seen as simply his portion on the “mixed plate of blessings and curses” served to any of us, and takes great pains to look for other factors when it comes to his accomplishments or flaws. His now-stifled impulse to drink himself unconscious at social gatherings, for example, might be attributed to shame over his peculiar speech patterns, but also to congenital shyness or the once-boozy newsroom culture.
“What’s That Pig Outdoors?” which exhibits a newspaperman’s economy and flow, is a plain-spoken eye-opener for readers without intimate knowledge of hearing loss. And while the author’s disability may be alien, his stubborn self-reliance should provoke readers to ponder when independence strengthens us, and when it plunges us into what Kisor calls the “desert of frustration.”
— Blake Eskin