Dave King's ambitious and original first novel, The Ha-Ha, is about a man unable to speak, write or read, who suddenly finds himself thrust into the role of father figure to a troubled young boy. Wounded by shrapnel early in his tour in Vietnam, Howard Kapostash returns home with a horrific head injury which he is not only unable to hide, but which has also pretty much eviscerated from his mind all he'd taken for granted his first 18 years.
More than 20 years later, Howard is treading water, working as a landscaper and living with three housemates in the home he grew up in. Although most of his old ties have been severed, one remains: beyond all evidence to the contrary, Howard is still hoping to rekindle his pre-Vietnam romance with Sylvia, the first and only real love of his life.
So when Sylvia asks him to watch her nine-year-old son Ryan while she takes a breather in rehab, Howard jumps at the chance. As their days together become weeks and then months, Howard and Ryan bond, slowly drawing each other from their respective shells, sometimes with damaging results. The addition of Ryan to the household also forces Howard to build more of a relationship with his roommates: the beautiful Laurel, a young Vietnamese woman, and two feckless young men. King's painstaking story tugs at the heart. Howard is an exasperating creation who gives the impression that even if he were able to speak, he would still have trouble communicating. Unable to act out his emotions through normal channels, he has suppressed them to a level that has left him nearly subhuman. It takes Ryan to make Howard take chances with his life. It could not have been easy for King who in his first book climbs out on a precarious limb to write about drug abuse, war and life as a damaged man to fashion a character as diffident toward existence as Howard, and so ponderously, with nearly as many steps backward as forward, to return him to life. Ian Schwartz writes from New York City.