The inability to communicate is one of the most dreaded losses to confront an intelligent person, as Howard Kapostash, the protagonist of Dave King’s debut novel, The Ha-Ha, well knows. This remarkable book is a tour de force given that it is narrated entirely by a character who cannot speak. Thirty years ago Howie was wounded in Vietnam when a land mine exploded, causing a hematoma in his left temporal lobe and leaving him with a dented skull and a puffy scar. His doctors say that he has anomia, an inability to recall names, but Howie believes that he is physically incapable of forming words (his one dependable syllable is “Not!”), although he fully understands the speech of others. He can read a few words sporadically, but he cannot write at all and is understandably frustrated when he is unable to respond to a complex question. Speech-impaired but mentally alert, he carries a card informing strangers that he is “of normal intelligence!”
Howie lives in the four-story Victorian house that belonged to his parents and still sleeps in his boyhood room. To help with expenses, he shares his home with three housemates, all in their thirties. Laurel Cao, originally from Vietnam, has a broad Texas accent from growing up in Austin. She has her own business, Soupe Toujours, which supplies gourmet soups to local businesses. Instead of paying rent, she handles Howie’s paperwork. The two men, Steve and Harrison (whom Howie has silently nicknamed Nit and Nat), paint houses and are “younger than they deserve.” Immature and irresponsible, they do not share in the daily work of the household, and Howie’s opinion of them is not high.
Currently Howie is a part-time maintenance worker at Mercy Convent under the watchful eye of Sister Amity, where his favorite job is mowing the Long Field. He likes to ride the John Deere mower to the very edge of the ha-ha, a deep ditch which conceals the boundary wall and creates an illusion of continuity in the landscape. Ascending the slope of the ha-ha and sharply turning back down reminds Howie of his sixteenth and final day in Vietnam when, slightly stoned, he and two other men walked through the jungle on patrol. Their lieutenant, distracted by an orchid, accidentally stepped on a mine and was killed, but the others survived. Howie’s indelible memory is of “the floating feeling as the ground fell away. The orange dust grew warm around me and filled recognizably with bits of life: the lieutenant’s netted helmet, a few leaves clinging to its brim; a spray of pebbles, like an asteroid belt.” He tries to recover the sensation of becoming airborne and falling through the orange air; he savors the weightlessness, the risk.
Living on wages and disability insurance payments, Howie appears to have adapted well to his changed life. Occasionally he feels a sudden rage but is usually able to control himself; otherwise, he remains disengaged. His interior monologue is coherent, and there is nothing wrong with his intellect or judgment, except when it comes to his high school sweetheart, Sylvia Mohr. When he left for Vietnam at eighteen, Sylvia saw him off. His love for her has never wavered, yet she contacts him only when she needs help with errands or repairsand he allows it. Once an art student, Sylvia ultimately gave up that lifestyle for temporary jobs and a cocaine addiction. She has a nine-year-old biracial son, Ryan. Currently, strung out on cocaine and at her sister’s urging, an unfocused Sylvia is entering a drug rehabilitation program for “a tune-up” and at the last moment asks Howie to be Ryan’s temporary guardian while she is in treatment.
The problem for Howie, then, is how to care for, communicate, and cope with a nine-year-old boy in a household of independent adults who barely speak to one another. Howie, who has had few close relationships, says of himself and Ryan, “We don’t go beyond neutral.” Although he has accepted responsibility for Sylvia’s son, he believes that the boy’s “happiness is his own business.” Still, in an awkward attempt to bond, Howie takes Ryan to a Golden Gloves championship boxing match. In real fights, Howie has always tried not to get hurt. His response to problems has been a self-protective withdrawal, habitually tucking his hands inside...
(The entire section is 1752 words.)