The Ha-Ha: A Novel
by Dave King
Published by Little, Brown and Company
340 pages, 2005
Funny-Strange, Not Funny
Reviewed by Mary Ward Menke
Don't let the title fool you: The Ha-Ha is not a funny book.
The introduction defines a ha-ha as "a boundary wall concealed in a ditch so that it does not intrude upon the view." In this case, the ha-ha is a steep grassy berm that drops off onto a busy roadway on the convent grounds where Howard Kapostash works. It's symbolic of Howard's life since a war injury left him unable to read, write or speak. Appearances can be deceiving.
Howard was brain-injured in a mine explosion, just 16 days after arriving in Vietnam. After years of therapy, he can only communicate via gestures and unintelligible guttural sounds. The single word he can manage is "Not." Still, he realizes how "lucky" he is:
... most people in my condition are emotionally volatile, but I'm the king of control, so at merely moody I'm a success story. No doubt about it.
Settling into a routine after his parents die, Howard shares his childhood home with three boarders: Laurel, a Vietnamese woman (he is aware of the irony) who grew up in Texas and speaks with a Southern accent, and Steve and Harrison, housepainters whom Howard calls Nit & Nat (a joke, of course, kept to himself). He cuts grass at the convent, reporting to Sister Amity, who warns him of the dangers of getting too close to the ha-ha.
Howard is still in love with his high school sweetheart, Sylvia, a narcissistic coke addict . Alternately supportive and condescending, Sylvia depends on Howard, and he is always there for her. When coerced into rehab, Sylvia leaves her nine-year-old son, Ryan, with Howard.
Howard narrates The Ha-Ha, a device that allows the reader an insider's view. When Sister Amity assumes Howard will participate in Memorial Day festivities, Howard realizes that she doesn't understand that the commonality of war experience is all that he and the other veterans share:
It's not that her assumption is so terrible, though anyone who knows me knows I go my own way. And it's not that she acts like she's talking to a child. It's all the things that have gone down, everything that didn't happen to me that I always thought would. It's being an exemplar of the admirably rebuilt life, the days spent zigging a holy lawn mower around paradise, the nights with strangers in my home. It's having a child on furlough from another family ... pretending I don't still suffer from nightmares. ... It's wondering by what queer twist I survived, and why I was given sixteen days and a lifetime of bleak endurance. It's the futility, always, of being understood.
This is Dave King's first novel and he successfully paints a complex portrait of a man unable to communicate. Howard and his "family" perhaps bond too quickly with moody Ryan to be believable considering their initial reluctance, but the climax shows just how wounded and vulnerable Howard really is. The happy ending is elusive, but the reader remains hopeful for Howard's future. | March 2005
Mary Ward Menke is a contributing editor to January Magazine and the owner of WordAbilities, LLC, providing writing and editing services to businesses and individuals. Her work has been published in The Toastmaster, Dog Fancy and Science of Mind magazines, in the Suburban Journals (a weekly St. Louis community newspaper) and on STLtoday.com.