April 10, 2015

No Kidding: A memoir by a darkly funny New Yorker cartoonist whose principal struggle in childhood was being a child.

In a quintessential Bruce Eric Kaplan (aka “BEK”) cartoon, the cartoonist’s signature pair—a crudely drawn man in shirt and tie, and his crudely drawn other half in a house dress—sit in their could-be-anywhere living room about as far from each other as the frame allows. Scanning the obituaries, the man reads aloud about a departed soul: “He died alone with his family.”

For over 20 years, the Kaplan homunculi have appeared in the pages of the New Yorker, prodding the underbelly of all manner of relationships. Husbands and wives: “Maybe I’m just old-fashioned, but I think you should keep everything bottled up inside you.” Parents and children: “When will I be old enough to start suing people?” Professionals and clients: “Woulda, coulda, shoulda. Next!” And friends, both old—“In my day people died”—and young—“You’re using the boogeyman as an excuse to shut me out.”

In the tradition of James Thurber, Mr. Kaplan is a writer who draws. He has crafted a style out of his limitations as an artist. It’s the captions—“the think, not the ink” as New Yorker cartoon editor Robert Mankoff puts it—that make the drawings funnier than the pictures themselves. Now, in his delightful memoir, “I Was A Child,” the cartoonist offers some insight into the origins of his seemingly pitch-black worldview.

Mr. Kaplan’s principal struggle in childhood was being a child. “I wasn’t very good at it. I’m not sure why,” he begins. A series of plain-spoken vignettes punctuated by Mr. Kaplan’s simple line drawings offers some clues. Part of the problem, no surprise, was his parents. When the family’s hamster gobbled its young, Mr. Kaplan’s mother blamed the children for scaring the critter and he took it to heart. “I felt we were too much for Hampy,” he writes, “just as we were too much for my mother.” His father, a textbook editor who sidelined writerly ambitions, was a stoic. “He just scowled and said he was fine.” Nothing in their house ever changed. His mother’s hairdo “was like a birthmark.” Their furniture was like a museum exhibit—only without the upkeep.

Much of Mr. Kaplan’s upbringing will strike readers as familiar. His childhood escape was television, where he glimpsed more colorful lives and found validation of his own alienation. Even “I Love Lucy” was fraught with tension. “I found it heartbreaking that Ricky got to be famous and have an exciting life at the Tropicana while Lucy was stuck in that terrible apartment with the Mertzes. Her pain was too much for me. I guess I identified.”

As in Mr. Kaplan’s cartoons, the shadows always find a way to creep into the frame in this book. His childhood preoccupations included the ever-present threat of bodily harm—“I had the sensation that everyone was a lot bigger and they could hurt me.”

His parents kept disorder at bay, but only barely. “Once the stuffing started coming out of the chair, a big blanket was thrown over it to solve the problem,” he writes of his favorite living room seat. “Everything in our house was repaired with Scotch tape. If a paint chip was coming off, it was taped down . . . I felt held together by Scotch tape, and still do.”

Ultimately, it is from the painful reality of adulthood—or at least the way his parents muddled through it—that the current of sadness in the memoir springs. Mr. Kaplan’s mother gave out pencils for Halloween. His parents entertained just once a year, on New Year’s Eve, and even then, it was a restrained affair. “I got to eat Cheez-Its on New Year’s Eve. Cheez-Its represented total utter, wild abandon.” They were practical to the point of being unimaginative. “I had some painful conversations with them about doing something impractical with my life when I finally screamed, ‘If one person in the world is doing that job, why can’t I be that person?’ ”

Evidently, he could. In addition to his cartoonist gig, Mr. Kaplan is a television writer, working on such shows as “Girls” and “Seinfeld.” But this memoir is not a reminiscence about making it. (Hopeful cartoonists: Interviews reveal that the young Mr. Kaplan submitted 10 cartoons a week to the New Yorker for two years.) It is a funny and moving look at the figures that inspired Mr. Kaplan’s cartoon world: men in hats, women in housecoats, and good-looking people nowhere in sight.

—Ms. Feith is a writer living in Washington, D.C.