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The Ha-Ha    by Dave King order for
by Dave King
Order:  USA  Can
Little, Brown & Co., 2005 (2005)
Hardcover, Audio, CD, e-Book

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

This is the story of an ordinary young man, Howard Kapostash, whose very brief stint in Vietnam left him mute and unable to read or write, though otherwise normally intelligent - labels, like anomia, alexia and adynamia have been tagged to different aspects of his condition. To other people, he is 'not merely unheard, but unseen also'. Though Howard has difficulty decyphering coded information in the world around him, he's an excellent observer and the reader shares his point of view and insights, including a great deal of what he would have said if he could have spoken. Telling how it feels to be him, he says 'It's that maybe I wasn't so much to begin with, but everything that was worth parading has been gone for so long I barely remember it.'

Howard has never got past the weightless, happy 'ha-ha' moment just before the explosion that changed his life forever. This disaster rippled outward to damage the lives of those close to him - in particular, his parents who are now dead, and his childhood sweetheart. He is still very embroiled in Sylvia's life, and she turns to him for the care of her young son Ryan while she's in rehab. Ryan's presence changes Howard's life and the lives of those around him. Howard enjoys their time together, especially playing the baseball dad, develops a fantasy of a future that will keep Ryan in his life, and clings to it. Though this sounds how you might expect the novel to develop, there's nothing trite about The Ha-Ha, which moves forward in unexpected directions.

Howard works as a handyman at a convent under the tetchy supervision of Sister Amity. There he mows the grass sloping steeply up to the 'ha-ha', a 'trick of landscape' to hide the interstate which intersects the property. He shares his family home with three tenants, to help pay the bills. Texan Laurel Cao runs her soup catering business there, and handles Howard's paperwork in return. His other tenants, Steve and Harrison (called 'Nit and Nat' by their landlord) paint houses for a living. Gradually, Ryan becomes the catalyst that makes this odd assortment of long-term room-mates warm to each other, as they share a growing fondness and concern for the boy. The life that once seemed 'so bland I barely remember how I spent my days' becomes warm and rich in friendship.

When the dream inevitably disintegrates and Howard feels betrayed by his friends, he receives help from a most unexpected source. This leads to an ending that doesn't present a silver lining but rather blows away just enough clouds to let a few rays of hope into this devastated life. The novel, which the author tells us is about 'expectation thwarted', made me very angry with almost every other character on its protagonist's behalf, and it made me cry. I highly recommend The Ha-Ha to you as an extraordinary exercise in empathy.

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