By Dave King
(Little, Brown and Company, 350 pp., $23.95)
Ha-ha is the architectural term for a sunken fence in a pasture or field, hidden in a ditch. The purpose of the fence is to contain livestock; it's designed to create the optical illusion of a rolling landscape without fissure, an idyllic continuity stretching on forever. The fence takes its name from the sound an unwary traveler might make upon encountering the ditch unexpectedly: ha-ha.
This information is provided in an epigraph to Dave King's beautifully written debut novel, The Ha-Ha. King's story is told by part-time landscaper Howard Kapostash, who is now 30 years removed from an explosion in Vietnam that left him partially but permanently brain damaged. He is the unlikeliest of narrators. The explosion left him physically intact but for an enormous scar on his forehead and the inability to read, write or speak.
The Ha-Ha begins when Howard's pre-Vietnam sweetheart, Sylvia, enters a drug rehab facility and asks Howard to care for her recalcitrant 9-year-old son, Ryan, while she's away. Howard, who still has romantic feelings for Sylviashe is the only person left who has heard him speak, all those years agoagrees, despite serious misgivings. (When the two are alone for the first time, Ryan asks, "Are you a retard?") Howard lives in his boyhood home with three housemates. Laurel, who does Howard's miscellaneous paperwork in lieu of rent, is a Vietnamese-born, Texas-raised chef with a twang in her voice. She is smart, sexy and runs her own catering business. Steve and Harrison are wild-living housepainters who say "dude" a lot; Howard, in his head, calls them Nit and Nat. Together, the housemates form a kind of dysfunctional commune, able to exist in close proximity but with little feeling for one another.
The commune predictably turns more family-like after Ryan moves in, with all members trying their best, often comically, to provide a decent home for the boy. But the real story here is the relationship between Ryan and Howard, and in turn between Howard and his entire way of being. Long shuttered inside his own head, having chosen existence over life, Howard is forced by Ryan's presence to make overtures toward the outside world. He signs the boy up for a Little League baseball team, takes him to a boxing match and ultimately allows a bond to develop.
The feel-good plot can't last forever, however. As quietly as King sets up Howard's transformation from semi-recluse to almost regular guy, he just as efficiently tears it down to transform Howard yet again, this time into something far more substantial. Beginning with Sylvia's impending return from rehab, a series of events almost breaks Howard completely: what he has gained he feels being jerked from him, and after two violent episodes he finds himself temporarily incarcerated in a psychiatric ward.
These episodes are ugly, and to the author's credit they cast doubt on Howard's credibility as a narrator. The reader, like Howard, is no longer on solid ground. Both have unexpectedly stepped into a metaphorical ha-ha. In this instability, we understand the depth of Howard's previous reluctance to engage the world: it is not just that the world is off kilter but that Howard, even beyond his communicative limitations, is off kilter, too. And it is through this realization that he can begin to participate in his life honestly. From there, King manages the true grace of his work, allowing the story's final chapters to finish with both heartbreak and hope.
One marvel of the book is how King manages to pull off Howard's extraordinary transformation with such low-key prose and in such a short time span. A bigger marvel, however, is that we buy into Howard's narrative at all: how can a man without speech speak for 350 pages? But buy into it we do, in much the same way that we suspend disbelief for the dead storyteller in Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones (Little, Brown, 2002) or the Tourette's syndrome-afflicted narrator in Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn (Doubleday, 1999). We believe it because the act of reading is itself transcendent, an experience well beyond staring at words on a page. When literature raises us to the higher levels of that transcendence, we have almost a duty to believeand practical considerations be damned.
While The Ha-Ha is a novel of many thingsfamily, friendship, disability, desireit is mostly a novel of learning to live, of truth and beauty, carrying within it the pain and ugliness those words entail, as well as their more optimistic tones of light and love. King has achieved something important with his first novel: he has given voice to the voiceless.
death to parking minimums
"Has decided 'likes to clean' counts as a personality." Yes. So much yes.
The stoned Scarlett theory makes complete sense.
If they stop filming in Nashville, I stop watching.
Juliette Barnes decides to run for President – and wins! Can the first…