Executive Times






2005 Book Reviews


The Ha-Ha by Dave King


Rating: (Highly Recommended)




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Dave King took many risks in writing his debut novel, The Ha-Ha. The brain-damaged narrator, Howard Kapostash, can’t speak or write as clearly as he thinks, and that creates either an opportunity for bathos or reader distraction. Thanks to King’s talent, the narrator remains an everyman, and there’s no distraction. Howard’s brain damage came from a Vietnam injury, shortly after he arrived in-country, and in an accident, not heroic valor. Despite his normal intelligence, Howard is usually treated by others as being mentally deficient because he can’t communicate. Most of the book centers around Howard’s relationship with Sylvia, his high school girlfriend, who exploits Howard, but leads Howard to breakthroughs when he develops a close relationship with her son, Ryan, whom Sylvia dumps on Howard when she enters rehab. Despite Howard’s inability to speak or write clearly, he makes human connections that are intense, and readers are treated with the pleasure of reading a fine novel that reveals the inner life of a fascinating character.


Here’s an excerpt, all of Chapter 11, pp. 54-58:


By morning I want to put yesterday behind us. When Sylvia and I quarreled as kids, I apologized whether I was wrong or not, but nobody’s expected an apology from me in years. I’m hoping to bury the hatchet in routine, so I mix up western omelets, but when I show Ryan the bowl he declines coolly. He’s being civil but aloof, and he doesn’t seem to realize how prissy this is. Laurel offers the phone again, and he says, “No, thank you,” a bit starchily. I concentrate on my cooking and avoid Laurel’s eye.

A box of cheap chocolate-covered doughnuts has materialized on the counter. Ryan takes two and a glass of OJ to the table. Nat appears, flashing his pearly whites, and says, “Ooh, my man! You don’t want to know how long those bad boys sat in the truck.” The yellow cake looks like packing material under its waxy brown frost­ing, but Ryan testily pronounces it good. Then he picks up and exits the kitchen, and Saturday cartoon sounds float in from the parlor. I glare at Nat why the hell couldn’t he toss his damn trash in the bin? but he only pours what’s left of my egg mixture in the fry­ing pan, and when his omelet is cooked he takes half in to Ryan.

I haven’t had many close relationships in my life. Sylvia and my parents, of course, but three’s a low total for a man my age. Look­ing back, I remember childhood friendships but few high school buddies once Sylvia and I were an item I was devoted to her. In the army, I met fellows from all over the country, with different backgrounds from my own, and I loved that; I was finally in the world. The first time I heard Spanish music was in basic, and the first time I had friends who’d been raised in slums or on farms. It was the first time I lived away from this house! Then basic ended, and we got separated overseas: different specialties, different pla­toons. Then my sixteen days. The men in my unit were good guys, I suppose, but I barely got to know them, shocked as I was by so much that was new: the weather, the landscape, the impossibility of phoning home. The heat, the smells, the way I missed my mom and dad and Sylvia and everything American and familiar, and even the bunk I’d had back in the barracks, and some of the boys I’d gotten to know there. The horrifying, defoliated landscape I’d flown over on the airlift in, and the very presence of live ammo, suddenly inescapable ours, theirs, rounds and clips and grenades and mines and flashes of light over distant trees Some of the seasoned soldiers had been together for months and were wary of newbies: we were bad luck ignorant, unskilled, naive, hopeful, frightened, and error-prone and everyone knew we couldn’t all make it through. So it was a while before I could tell one grunt from the next, and the first person I grew friendly with was Rimet, who also was fresh meat. He just cracked a joke one morning in the chow line. But even on that last day, as we humped through the hills, I suspected Rimet and I weren’t lifelong friends. I had more in common with the lieutenant, I thought, and I hoped to get to know him better. We’d gotten stoned, and the LT was looking for orchids, and I felt as good as I’d felt since my arrival. The sun was out. So some men have war bud­dies they keep in touch with for years afterward, but not me. And I never know what to do when someone’s angry at me.

All morning, Ryan keeps himself occupied. I figure the hell with him and go out to polish the truck, but when he helps Nit and Nat load up their van I think he might pitch in here, too. He pays me no attention. I go inside and stretch out on the parlor couch, and when the house empties, I hear Ryan tromping upstairs. I’m not unaccustomed to being alone, and for years I’ve spent my time exactly like this. But it’s harder to feel comfortable about being excluded, so I stare at the ceiling and wonder if Laurel’s detected my exile. I have my reasons for manhandling him yesterday, but when I imag­ine defending myself to her, I foresee the verdict. In the Court of Laurel, I’m a condemned man.

Around one, I tap on his door; he opens it a few inches. I’m here to reconcile, and I pat my stomach. Come on, it’s the weekend! Let’s go somewhere for lunch. “I’m doing my homework,” he says, but some­thing’s funny in his expression, so I push the door. Inside, sunlight streams across the unmade bed, and clots of white fluff cover the floor. It takes me a moment to spot the pink bundle, like a flocked bathrobe, cast in a corner, and I realize he’s demolished the Ener­gizer Bunny. A strip of torn wallpaper lies in a wedge on the far side of the bed. I push past him to pick it up.

The hell with him. The hell with everything! My dad papered this room himself, with my help, and to avoid another regrettable out­burst I take off, slamming the downstairs door. I buy a tuna sandwich and head to the nun’s private sitting area in back of the convent building, and I eat my lunch and listen to the roar of the ha-ha and scowl at the gravel between my feet. Sister Margaret appears and says, “Why, Howard! What brings you here on a Saturday?” She opens a fat book and starts to read, and I go back to my truck in the parking lot and sit there awhile.

When I get home, Nit and Nat are in the back yard. The heavy guy from last night is there, too, and they’ve got a small fabric pouch, like a beanbag, which they’re knocking around with their heads, elbows, and heels. Ryan’s playing right along. I stand by my truck and watch them dart about in the sunshine, and I wonder if anyone will toss me the little pouch, but only Laurel seems to see me at all. She leans on my hood and says, “That boy was all by him­self when I got home, Howard. I don’t think that’s right. And I want him to call his mother.” I go inside and turn on the TV.

As evening falls, Laurel comes looking for me again. “Howard,” she says from the parlor doorway, “there’s a few things we need to —“

I jump up perhaps too quickly, because the house shifts, and the room’s all stuffy. Somewhere there’s conversation, and I remem­ber I left Ryan with Nit and Nat; the world of talking is just out of reach. I wonder if I’ve been asleep, and as I reach out to steady myself, I swat at a standing lamp. Yellow circles flash over ceiling and floor. “Bot,” I say, and wipe my brow with my arm.

Laurel looks at me a moment, then puts up both hands. “Well, I told you I wouldn’t get involved,” she says. I wait for the inevitable but Howard, blab, blab, blah but she only stares con­templatively out the window. And suddenly I wish she’d just go ahead. I’d love to know what’s on her mind, if I could only respond. Because hell, I’ve got some thoughts of my own. We could hold a seminar Laurel, Sylvia, those idiot boys on handling Ryan during his stay, and I’d tell everyone within hearing that this wasn’t my best week, but I did what I could. And how about a little warning if I’m to be someone’s dad? How about respect, too from the kid, from everyone. Or forgiveness! Love! Oh, once I got started I’d never shut up. I’d make a case for myself: Yes, my Boo Radley act yester­day was in all ways uncool, but how fair is the freeze-out? I’m get­ting my bearings, not just with Ryan, but going back decades, my whole life. Sylvia, too. I want a chance at something! And I’d tell Laurel to quit looking at me fishily. I stood up fast and got dizzy, what of it?

But I only steady the lamp, then fold my hands under my over­all bib. Laurel says, “Harrison and Steve were talking about a movie later,” and after a moment she saunters to the kitchen. I follow because it seems we’re in the middle of a conversation, and I know I’ve been glaring at her, but when we get to the kitchen I just peer through the screen door. Outside, Nit and the fat friend are lying in the grass, their hands on their bellies. Nat’s looking at the news­paper, leaning close as the light fails, and Ryan’s teasing Ruby with the beanbag. Nat lifts his shirt to wipe the sweat from his face, and I realize summer’s here.

Laurel fans her face with her hand. “Anyway, a movie sounds good to me, and if you like, I could take Ryan.” Ran. Sure, I’ll stay home with the dog. She sets a tray on the counter and gets out six glasses, then opens the freezer and finds a can of frozen lemonade. I watch her strip the lid from the can and dump the contents into a pitcher, and I take three lemons from the fruit bowl and place them on the counter. “Thanks,” she says.

Out on the main road, a car radio waxes and wanes. Somewhere a girl squeals. Ruby gives three short yips, and one of the boys shouts, “Hey, hey, hey! Don’t give her that thing what’s the mat­ter with you? It ain’t good for a dog, man, and she’ll fuck it up with her saliva.”

Laurel frowns, her knife bisecting a lemon. She glances impa­tiently toward the back yard and says, “Is that what you want? Turn him over to the frat house? It’s fine, but I mean.. .“ She stirs the lemonade, making the ice cubes clink. “Because maybe you oughta just come on along to the movie yourself. You’re supposed to be in charge.” She looks up, raising her eyebrows, and again I wonder what she knows of my disgrace. I’ve never before been to a movie with Laurel. “Hmm?” she says, as if anticipating a response. Truly, I’d love to respond.

Laurel picks up the pitcher and tucks a bag of Fritos in the crook of her arm, then turns and opens the screen door with her butt. “Howard, things happen sometimes, and we go along with them. This placid life you’ve got going, your routine. It works great for you, but isn’t there space to fit a boy in there somewhere?” In the other room, the TV is still yammering, and I don’t know whether to go back to the parlor or follow Laurel outside. Does it seem I haven’t made adjustments? I don’t move, and the corner of her mouth turns up a fraction. “Start by bringing out those glasses.”


The intensity and restraint of Howard, and the skill of King’s writing make The Ha-Ha one of the finest debut novels we’ve read.


Steve Hopkins, April 23, 2005



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