DON'T WORRY, HE WON'T GET FAR ON FOOT. By John Callahan. Vintage. 219 pages. $8.95 softcover.
THE FIRST thing a cartoonist has to learn is to get the joke over quickly. If the audience doesn't "get it" in an instant, the cartoonist may as well pack it in.
In this book about his life, cartoonist John Callahan, whose work has appeared in Playboy, the New Yorker and major newspapers, gets the joke over immediately -- in the title. The gag line comes, of course, from the old Western movies, when the varmint's horse would return without him. "Don't worry," the hero would say, "he MikeLanewon't get far on foot."
But here's the joke: Callahan, the varmint in this case, is a quadriplegic, and he's right there on the cover in his wheelchair. Some joke, right?
This is Callahan's story of his life, including a misspent youth that borrowed heavily against the future. In fact, he incurred a debt that will never be repaid: He broke his body in an automobile accident in a haze of booze and drugs.
By the age of 12, Callahan discovered gin, and by Chapter 3 we have a "C5-6 quadriplegic." This means his spinal cord is severed between the fifth and sixth vertebrae, counting down from the top. As Callahan describes it, that's about halfway between decathlon champion and rigor mortis. He can move his FTC triceps, half of his deltoids, half of his diaphragm. He writes movingly about all this, describing a condition that horrifies. But he does it with devilish black humor that makes it easier for us to read on.
The book is full of rich detail on medical, emotional, financial and everyday aspects of the quadriplegic as artist. (For example, many "quads" have to hire people to turn them at night so they don't get bed sores.) This is not a nice book, but it is a funny book if you've got the stomach. It's a tragic story as Callahan tells of his bout with alcohol long after becoming wheelchair-bound. And it's a human story as the author tells of the sexual needs of the quadriplegic.
The artist's simple line drawings are funny depictions of circumstances we don't usually think of as funny -- such as blindness or crippling infirmities. But he knows that the blind and crippled possess humor, too. Were he not a "quad," of course, his cartoons would be met with outrage. But under the circumstances, who better than he to bring a little mirth into this world?
Mike Lane is The Evening Sun's political cartoonist. His own work is on exhibit at the Peabody Conservatory until Oct. 26.