Samuel Johnson called deafness ''the most desperate of human calamities.'' Despite the humor and good cheer that make Henry Kisor's What's That Pig Outdoors? A Memoir of Deafness a rare pleasure to read, the author does not disagree with Johnson's bleak assessment. ''Can deafness be 'conquered?''' Kisor asks. ''Nonsense. That's a sentimental notion beloved by writers of inspirational literature. But, like a wolf at the edge of the forest, it can be held at bay.'' How the author has met this harrowing challenge is the central topic of his eloquent and unusual autobiography.
Kisor lost his hearing in 1944, at the age of 3, after nearly dying from acute meningigis. Shortly afterward, his parents chanced upon a highly unconventional teacher for the deaf, Doris Irene Mirrielees. A committed ''oralist'' who spurned any reliance on sign language, Mirrielees insisted on teaching deaf children to read books, to read lips, to write, and, eventually, to speak.
So successful was the Mirrielees Method in Kisor's case that he grew up among hearing children, playing with them, attending school with them, only gradually becoming aware of the limitations that made him different while simultaneously learning more and more techniques to compensate for these limitations.
The first deaf student in a century to attend Trinity College, Kisor astonished classmates by his uncanny ability to ''hear,'' sight unseen, visitors entering a room. How does he do it? ''Perhaps it's just the almost imperceptible puff of air ruffing the hair on the back of my neck as a caller opens the door. Or the slight reflection of a glint of light from my reading lamp on the moving doorknob in the glass of a framed photograph that hangs on the wall just above my desk.''
Today Kisor is the book review editor for the Chicago Sun-Times. Despite his obvious success, he still must cope with intractable difficulties. Large literary parties are especially arduous, since in these situations it is almost impossible to stay in the swim of a conversation by following purely visual cues. And even under the best of circumstances, lipreading ''is full of snares and delusions.'' ''What's that big loud noise?'' his son once asked him. ''Mystified, I arose from the couch, peered out the window, and said, 'What pig outdoors?'''
Does Kisor's experience offer a useful model? As he himself admits, probably not. Most deaf people still depend on sign language a distinctive visual culture prized by many deaf activists and few of them have the training or inclination to follow in Kisor's footsteps.
Still, his modesty, courage, and optimism are enormously appealing. And whatever its implications for others, his struggle to connect with the wider world has produced a remarkable memoir.