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

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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.

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.

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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.

But at the end of their first day, Howard knows it's all a mistake. "The truth is," he thinks, "this boy is a little stranger.... I'm trying to remember what life is like at nine years old, and whether kids in my day were as inscrutable as this one." In the crushing silence, he tortures himself slowly by imagining all the casual, friendly banter that would break the ice if only he could speak.

Of course, Sylvia doesn't come back the next day or even the next week, and Howard must face the task of providing Ryan with a real home rather than temporary lodging. He already has three tenants in the large house that his parents left him: Nit and Nat, two young house painters, who swear and walk around in their underwear, and Laurel, a Vietnamese woman who supplies soup to area restaurants.

They can all speak, but otherwise they don't seem much better equipped to care for Ryan than Howard is. "I'm not one of those gals with untapped maternal instincts," Laurel announces the moment she can get Howard alone.

"Hey: me," Howard thinks. "This is my thing." But it takes a village to raise a child, or at least a household of misfits, and before long, all of them are drawn together in a makeshift family that illustrates the persistence of affection and the wondrous variety of domestic arrangements.

There's nothing forced or sentimental here. Ryan is not unscathed by the effects of growing up with a drug-addicted mother. And his unruly presence disrupts the fragile emotional stability that Howard has managed to maintain through years of isolation. What's worse, Howard resents that he has to do all the heavy work, while Nit and Nat get to play the cool uncles and Laurel bakes cookies.

Parenting is hard work, and anybody who's done it can sympathize with Howard's speechlessness in the face of a surly little boy. He's determined not to lapse into his "Boo Radley act," but the anxiety of loving someone so infuriating is the hardest thing he's ever done. For the first time in years, he has to get used to "the incomparable strangeness of feeling tired at bedtime."

Most of the novel is taken up with this story of hammering out the new dimensions of family life for all four of these characters who never expected much from life. "More than ever," Howard thinks, "I want the happiness to cohere," but he can't shake the sense of muted panic that all this will come crashing down as soon as Ryan's mother is better, which of course he wants.

The paths to recovery - of all kinds - are not smooth or assured in "The Ha-Ha." Howard's lapses take him back to humiliations that some readers may find too gritty. But this is ultimately a story of smothered tenderness coaxed back to flame. In the poetic voice of a silent man, King has created a strangely lovable hero whose chance for happiness will matter to you deeply.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments about the book section to Ron Charles.

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