Dave King,
The Ha-Ha
(Time Warner, 2005)

When most folks see a novel titled The Ha-Ha, they might think the book is about a joke, or at least something funny. But the term, in this case, refers to a fence hidden by landscaping. Generally, these fences were designed to maintain a boundary for livestock while not interrupting the view. In the novel of that name by Dave King, the ha-ha in question is on the grounds of a convent. Livestock is not involved. The ha-ha is important, however, in that it represents a line, a separation, that exists in the main character's life.

Howie -- Howard Kapostash -- is a Vietnam War veteran who was wounded overseas. It has been 30 years since the incident that changed his life forever. But, while Howie survived his run-in with the landmine that killed another soldier, he lost the ability to speak and read. A scar still shows vividly on his skull. Those who are close to him, like the boarders in his house or the nuns at the convent where he maintains the lawn, know Howie is of normal intelligence. Strangers, however, find his hand gestures and animal grunts proof of a mentally handicapped individual.

Since childhood, Howie has had unrequited love for Sylvia. At the opening of the novel, unwed Sylvia imposes on Howie (as she knows she can) to watch her 9-year-old son, Ryan, while Sylvia spends a couple months in a rehab center. Being the self-absorbed person that she is, Sylvia has convinced herself that she is doing Howie a favor. Won't looking after a child give Howie some semblance of a normal life? Besides, in Sylvia's mind, it is Howie's fault she has a drug problem to begin with, never mind that it was always her choice to ingest these toxic substances.

The Ha-Ha follows the course of four months in Howie's life. The tale is told from his point of view. While he cannot vocalize his thoughts, the listener of the audiobook hears what goes on in his mind as the story unfolds. Howie comes to love the child Ryan, learns just how close to becoming a mentally disturbed vet one might find living on the streets he truly is, and he learns (several decades too late) that it might be time to move beyond the narcissist he has pined for all these years.

The author of The Ha-Ha, King, has been writing poetry for years. His works have been published in The Paris Review and Big City Lit. Currently residing in Brooklyn, N.Y., this is his first novel. After the novel, there is a short interview with King where he explains that he had an autistic brother, whom Howie is loosely based on. The main difference is that his brother was born with his disability where Howie became differently abled as a young man. The interview is worth listening to, despite the fact that the interviewer sounds as if he is not listening to Dave's answers and simply wants to continuously move on to his next question.

The novel is read by Terry Kinney. I am familiar with Terry from his time on the HBO show Oz. You might remember him from Thirtysomething or the movie The Firm. For the most part, Terry does a decent job, especially as Howie. Where Terry falls short is with the supporting character of Laurel. Terry's "Texas" accent is so bad that I cringed whenever this character spoke. It wasn't even a good general Southern accent. Terry made English comedian Benny Hill's cowboy drawl sound legit.

For me, personally, I was not overly impressed with The Ha-Ha. I understand that Howie is on the edge of this proverbial ha-ha and the novel is about which side he falls on. But truthfully, I never cared about any of the characters. I did think the writing and acting were good enough that I did come to loathe Sylvia; she is a witch with a capital B. Unfortunately, there was definitely something lacking in The Ha-Ha. I never felt entirely engaged even though I wanted to care. At best, this novel helped pass the time on my workday commutes.

by Wil Owen
11 February 2006

Buy it from Amazon.com.