Quiet banter between a mute man and tongue-tied boy
The little boy who drops into Howard's silent life seems like a horrible inconvenience - but he changes everything
Howard, the narrator of Dave King's debut novel, "The Ha-Ha," has a condition that makes him an unlikely storyteller: He cannot write, read, or speak. After a near-fatal injury in the Vietnam War when he was 18, Howard gradually regained normal intelligence and physical ability, but words have remained beyond his grasp for decades. He gave up on therapy, he developed no interest in sign language, and he won't stoop to pantomime, so the most anyone gets from him as he plods through his daily routine is a shrug or a raised eyebrow.Skip to next paragraph
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But for us, transported into Howard's mind by the magic of fiction, his long-silenced voice is irresistible. He's unfailingly honest, determined to survive the second half of his life without succumbing to hope or despair. After bouts of almost deadly depression, drug use, and whoring (all briefly but graphically described), he has managed to wrench himself into a kind of inanimate suspension, "a lifetime of bleak endurance." "Most guys in my condition are emotionally volatile," he tells us, "but I'm the king of control." Right.
In the book's title, you may hear a note of bitter cynicism or compensating gaiety, but like so much about "The Ha-Ha," the title refers to something complex and unexpected. To supplement his disability pension, Howard mows the sprawling lawn of a local convent. The only flashes of joy in his life come when he periodically disobeys Sister Amity, his condescending boss, and rides the lawnmower right up to the edge of the ha-ha, a steep ditch that separates the convent from an interstate highway.
These moments of risky insubordination might have remained the only wrinkles in his well-ordered life if not for an old girlfriend, Sylvia. His fractured condition when he returned from Vietnam put a stop to their romance, but he's remained hopelessly in love, even as he's watched her move through several disastrous boyfriends and raise her mixed-race son.
Despite himself, he expresses his affection with humiliating Quasimodo devotion. "For years I've been the guy she calls when she's in a pickle," he admits, but those years of fixing her screen door and repairing her car can't prepare him for the request that opens this novel: Forced into rehab to get a grip on her drug addiction, Sylvia asks Howard to take care of her 9-year-old boy, Ryan, for a few days.
They barely know each other, and Howard has no native parental skills or any desire to acquire them, but he's determined to come through for Sylvia, convinced she'll be home the next day. "Nothing will change," he assumes. "Her life - and mine, to the extent it revolves around hers - will start up once again at virtually the same point." This is a classic straw-man expectation at the beginning of a great story.
Ryan is a normal little boy, apprehensive but endlessly adaptable. That his gruff new guardian can't speak is weird, but whatever. He can play catch. He can take him to the zoo. He can do a passable, if stiff, imitation of Divorced Dad's Weekend of Fun.