The HA-HA by David King

Reviewed by Nordeen Morello, Book'Em ...take our poll!

The Ha-Ha (October 19, 2006) It requires a special book to triumph at Book'Em's September "it's been so long…what's new?" meeting. Fortunately, Dave King's The Ha-Ha was our selection for the month and it easily surmounted the distractions.

The story revolves around Howard Kapotash, a man left mute, alexic and with a cranial deformity from an injury thirty years ago in Vietnam. He manages to live independently and rents rooms in his house to a pair of house painters and a soup chef, though they share little more than physical space. Then Ryan, the nine-year-old son of a friend, comes into Howard's short-term care and transforms Howard, his housemates and their lives.

That description may sound generic but King's telling of this story is unique. Howard does not have the ability to communicate with the world around him. He can't speak, he can't write and he can read simple messages with difficulty. Howard can only offer us his internal monologue as the narrator. Indeed, he has essentially lived his life alone inside himself as most people assume he is either mentally impaired or the stereotyped disturbed "Nam vet."

The Book'Em members were immediately engaged with this novel. King is able to create a complete picture of Howard's life, interest in and empathy for him without evoking pity for the man. It is a human story and one with dignity. The use of a first person "inside Howard's head" perspective "may have been a gimmick but the author was brilliant -- Howard had no outside life," was one observation.

We talked about the humanizing, connecting, transforming influence that Ryan's presence created. This knitting together of lonely, perhaps dysfunctional, lives into a family was truly touching. King rarely dramatizes or sentimentalizes; in fact Howard can be quite sarcastic and humorous. Our discussion also emphasized how the nature of many illnesses, deformities, handicaps and disabilities traps an individual within their body. Imagine living inside your mind! King's interior monologue sharpens the contrast between intent and its perception. We looked at Howard's statement: "I can't! I won't work harder than I already do," and realized how judgmental human nature is and how inappropriate our reactions often are. A typical assumption is that the challenged individual just needs "to try harder." This is an illuminating aspect of The Ha-Ha.

An additional insight gleaned by Howard's view of one of his "normal" housemates -- "I wonder what life he expected to have" -- revealed how universal compromise, loss, and lack of fulfillment are for everyone.

In the latter third of The Ha-Ha there is an episode that seemed incongruous and unnecessary to most of us but certainly does not detract from the quality of this first novel nor the enthusiasm of our group for it. Your members will find this title a pleasure to read; your group's discussion will uncover its depth.

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