A Ha-Ha is a sunken fence used to divide land without visibly altering the landscape. This tidbit from landscape architecture forms the central metaphor of Dave Kingâ€™s debut novel THE HA-HA.
Howard Kapostash canâ€™t speak, read, or write, but he can communicate. Disfigured by a landmine in Vietnam, Howard is the novel’s first person narrator. He lives in the midwestern town where he grew up, not far from Sylvia, his high school sweetheart. Sylvia is headed to rehab and asks Howard to look after her nine year old son Ryan. Howard readily agrees; Sylvia is his last good memory, the lingering image of first love. With his parents dead, she is the only person in his life who knew him before the war, the only person whoâ€™s heard him speak.
Howard maintains the grounds of a convent. His favorite activity is steering his big John Deere across an expanse of lawn toward the ha-ha. His household consists of Laurel Cao, a Vietnamese-American woman with a Texas drawl; two young men he thinks of as Nit and Nat, and now, Ryan, Sylviaâ€™s African-American son. Ryanâ€™s arrival inspires Howard and the others to emerge from their private worlds to ease the boyâ€™s transition. As school ends and high summer begins, Howard enrolls Ryan with a baseball team. Ryanâ€™s a prodigious hitter, but an angry young man, a feeling Howard knows too well. Despite Laurelâ€™s urging, Ryan refuses to call his mother in rehab. After some false starts the five people who live in Howardâ€™s house begin to function as a family.
Sylvia brackets THE HA-HAâ€™s storyline. Her departure incites the story and her return sets up the bookâ€™s climax and resolution. What occurs in between revolves around Ryan as much as Howard. Some of the best scenes in the novel occur in the middle of the book. Howard takes Ryan for a ride on the John Deere, a simple outing that ends on the brink of the conventâ€™s ha-ha. Ryan falls off the tractor; the supervising nun suspends Howard after slapping him.
A chance meeting with Sylvia at a barbecue joint exposes hope and expectation as a folie-a-deux for Howard and Ryan. Her patter is as vain and self-absorbed as an adolescentâ€™s. Her imminent release promises disasters to come.
Howardâ€™s encounters with a homeless man set up the novelâ€™s most violent scenes. Is he a high school buddy, fellow survivor of the war? More importantly is he real or an apparition? These scenes undermine the readerâ€™s trust in Howardâ€™s perceptions; they feel abrupt and strangely inconsequential.
Dave King tells the story front to back while showing us what it is to be Howard. The flashback scenes to Vietnam are moving and well placed in the narrative. He creates a language for Howard, a vital interior monologue within a damaged faÃ§ade. The terrain of Howardâ€™s life was altered in one flash bang moment, one collision with an unseen wall. Howard searches for that moment again, trying to understand it, something nine-year-old Ryan intuitively senses. I think this forms the bond between them; itâ€™s up to the other characters to pull them apart, make them safe, plant warning flags, call the authorities and restore order. Itâ€™s a powerful, well-written novel and a very impressive debut.