Published by Little, Brown, and Company
Review by W. R. Greer
Howard Kapostash can't talk. He can't read or write, but he is of normal intelligence and physical strength. A war injury suffered in Vietnam has damaged his brain, leaving him unable to communicate with the rest of the world. The rest of the world, though, is no longer that important to Howard. He's managed to carve out a life where he doesn't need to communicate. His housemate, Laurel, helps him with paperwork and bills, and he mows the lawn at a local convent to provide him with enough income to get by. Relationships are a luxury he can do without, and he's come to grips with this quiet life. All this makes Howard an unlikely narrator for any novel, but in Dave King's The Ha-Ha, Howard is a complex, damaged, and all too human man who you won't be able to forget long after you've finished this novel.
The Ha-Ha begins with the one constant relationship in Howard's life calling in a favor. Sylvia was Howard's high school sweetheart and the girl who would be waiting for him to return from the war. The Howard she knew never came home, and though they were never lovers again, they remained friends over the years. Sylvia had a son, Ryan, by another man. She also has a drug problem, and her sister has convinced her to check herself into a rehabilitation center. Someone needs to take care of Ryan, though, and that task falls to Howard. It's just for a few days, he says to himself, how hard can it be to take care of a 9-year old boy for that amount of time?
Howard lives in the house his parents owned, and he shares it with Laurel and two thirtyish men who are house painters. He dislikes the men, not even referring to them by their names, but referring to them as Nit and Nat. He needs the rent they provide him, and his interaction with them is minimal. He makes up a spare room for Ryan and prepares to tough out the few days until Sylvia comes back from rehab. Unfortunately, her absence stretches from days to weeks to months. Howard finds himself being a surrogate parent to Ryan, testing their patience and resolve and forcing both of them to cope with the anger that is bubbling just below the surface.
Taking care of Ryan forces Howard out of his shell and into the world. There are new people with whom he must find a way to communicate, relationships of some sort that must be forged, and a boy who needs his attention. This has the potential for a movie-of-the-week sentimentality; grizzled veteran brings precocious boy into his household, and despite a few setbacks, they form a sweet family bond and everyone is all smiles by the end. Dave King avoids this schtick and does an extraordinary job of making all the characters flawed and realistic and their reactions to their situation are tender, anguished, and brutal at times.
Ryan is anything but precocious. He is angry with his mother and refuses to talk with her on the phone or go see her at the rehab center. He throws tantrums, keeps secrets, and is afraid of not fitting in with the other boys. He calls the boy that lives next door to his mom's house Fartin' Martin. Yet, Ryan also desires acceptance and affection and has no problem accepting Howard with his limitations. The two of them find a way to communicate, and Howard tries to walk the fine line between being on Ryan's side and being the authority figure for him. Parenting can be infuriating work for a normal adult, but for Howard it's even worse because he can't vent his frustrations or voice his wants and desires.
Howard veers back and forth between inner rage and self-pity, enjoying the growing bonds with Ryan and his housemates, and dreaming of a new future for himself. Despite her protests that she's not maternal, Laurel is the organizing force in the house. Howard cooks breakfast for Ryan every morning and eventually Laurel, Nit, and Nat join them. Ryan's presence gives meaning to Howard's life and a center point for the household activity. Yet, for each step forward for Howard, there's a rude adjustment as reality slams him with another body blow. He thinks constantly about the explosion in Vietnam that blew him into the air and changed his life forever. "The most ethereal moments of my life were the seconds before I crashed down on my head." He re-creates this feeling when mowing the lawn at the convent, pushing the riding mower over the edge of the ha-ha, the ditch between the lawn and highway, at just the right rate of speed to be nearly airborne for a few seconds before quickly turning away from the danger.
He remembers fondly his love for Sylvia and wonders if it can be rekindled. He also remembers his life once he returned from Vietnam with drugs, violence, and prostitutes as his main activities. His parents became empty shells at the return of their uncommunicative and angry son, and Howard is now embarrassed at his behavior then.
I think of my father's bottles, stowed under the seat of his car or in the back room, by the privy. That was how I knew he'd given up. I think of a warm night when I was so wrecked I lay on this very lawn, tearing at my thighs and inventing vulgar poems to ward off the explosions above me; I couldn't speak a word of poetry, of course, but I bellowed and screeched at the top of my lungs, and when my mother came out in her nightgown and begged me to stop, I wasn't even sure it was she, not some figment. Even when she took hold of my hands, I swung out, thinking -- or maybe that's another occasion. This happened more than I like to admit.Howard's recollection of his drugs and whoring are graphic and disturbing. They reflect the lengths a man will go in hopes of self-destruction. Parenting Ryan rekindles feelings he once left behind, the desire for love and the desire to belong to something greater than himself. His inability to communicate continues to hamper his ability to achieve this life and taps into that rage that simmers just below the surface. Each setback feeds this frustration, even something as simple as finding out in the school office that they've missed the registration period to sign up for Little League:
I draw my brows together and scowl at the wall. I could easily begin flailing, and I'd end by demolishing everything in sight, from the file cabinets to the glass case of little birds to the fat and thin women themselves. I'd reduce the whole universe to rubble and bone. There's a stereotype here -- the flipped-out vet -- and I don't know why I've resisted it so long. A frustrated, fucked-up, scarred-up crazy man is dying in this office; why pretend that's not so? I reach out to scoop up the two little cards, and my hand hits the counter with such a thud that we all jump.Dave King avoids easy answers and neat resolutions to Howard's dilemma. Howard knows that eventually Sylvia will come home and Ryan will leave his house. He's afraid that his life will revert to the way it was before Ryan came, and now that he's had a taste of something better, he can't go back to that again. He also doesn't know if there's anything he can do about it.
Ryan glances at me, then says, "That's cool." His voice is deliberate and uninflected, and I wonder if he's come to his mom's aid this same way. "Sorry for taking up all your-all's time." He rubs a shoulder into my gut. "Come on, man."
I can't remember a protagonist for whom I cared for so deeply, for whom I wanted to find the happiness he wants so desperately. His frustration is palpable, his small victories are uplifting, and his memories of that moment in Vietnam are devastatingly sad. Howard Kapostash will stay with you for a long, long time and deserves to be one of the memorable characters of contemporary fiction. If you appreciate extraordinary fiction, then The Ha-Ha should not be missed.
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