Tour of Duty 

A damaged veteran and a fatherless boy in America the unbeautiful.

The Ha-Ha

By Dave King

Little, Brown, 340 pp., $23.95

• the off-chance you don't know, a ha-ha's no laughing matter. It's a retaining wall sunk in a ditch. Seen one way, it keeps farm animals -- cows, sheep -- in their place, away from the main house. Seen the opposite way, it offers the homeowner an unbroken view across his property. In short, it's an illusion, a lie of the landscape.

In Dave King's accomplished debut novel, the ha-ha's no laughing matter either. It's on the grounds of a convent in some unnamed Midwestern city, and it's a dangerous opportunity for army veteran Howard Kapostash, the grounds-keeper, to go right over the edge. He may thrill to feeling airborne on his riding mower as he climbs the ha-ha's bank, but at its height he risks toppling into the traffic of the highway below. He's got his reasons to risk it though.

Back when Howie was drafted at the age of 18, and only 16 days into his tour of Vietnam, his guiding lieutenant (who was stoned) wandered off to look at a flower and stepped on a land mine, which killed the lieutenant, injured another soldier, and sent Howie (also stoned) flying, then crashing with a hematoma in his left temporal lobe. He was in a coma. Then he was in rehab, but he gave up on therapy when he failed to make real progress after years of trying. Today, decades later, he's off the acid he used to drop, but he still can't remember properly (anomia), he still can't read or write properly (alexia), and he still can't speak properly (the product of adynamia). He also suffers from a deep dislike of confrontation and "emotional volatility" -- a distinct disadvantage for this self-described "king of control." Weightless on that convent's John Deere (and toying with suicide on that ha-ha) is about the one thrill the guy's got left in life. It sure beats having to handle Sylvia Mohr.

Sylvia's a real user -- of cocaine and of anybody mistaken enough to respond to her incessant whining and unpredictable mood swings. She's also an ex-artist with a mean streak and Howie's one and only ex-girlfriend from high school. (Never mind his subsequent history hiring cut-rate hookers.)

When Sylvia is forced by her sister in Chicago into drug rehab, her 9-year-old, fatherless, semi-African-American son, Ryan, needs a home and an adult on hand. Howie's the man, and for two months his household's the place. Laurel (who rents a room from Howie) is the fortysomething Vietnamese-turned-Texan who heads the kitchen and makes sure the bills get paid. Harrison and Steve (aka Nit and Nat, or is it Nat and Nit?) are the thirtysomething house-painters ("not bad people, just stupid and untested," according to Howie), who rent the remaining bedrooms. But Ryan is Howie's to look after -- forget the scary scar sunk in Howie's forehead, forget Howie's unintelligible barkings and wordless gesturings, and forget that Ryan is equally, initially uncommunicative and given to angry outbursts.

There's more and it's worse, however: flashbacks to Howie's deceased alcoholic father (his mother a shadowy figure); Howie's run-in with Sister Amity after he jeopardizes the life of Ryan on that riding mower; Howie's run-in with a homeless Vietnam vet, a man Howie in one scene beats to a bloody pulp and in a subsequent scene scares into the path of an oncoming car; Howie's multiple run-ins with Sylvia, who, even out of rehab, remains a real piece of work; and Howie's brief run-in with the law and a team of clueless pyschiatrists. Thank God, then, for Ryan's Little League baseball team, which does both boy and man some temporary good. Thank Laurel too for seeing through to Howie's better nature, which is kindness itself ... Howie the end product of some very raw deals. Howie the dreamer and something of a poet.

Author Dave King sets himself a tough task measuring out this much high drama inside one first-time novel. Not the least of his difficulties is leading off with a character who cannot make his good intentions known despite his buried rage against those whose burdens, he thinks, are lighter than his own. The frustration is Howie's, but it's readers' too.

Ours as well: America the unbeautiful unable or unwilling to face the scar of Vietnam on a generation entering into middle age amid broken families and newfangled families. In The Ha-Ha, no joke, it's the well-rendered lay of the land. •

BOOKS by LEONARD GILL

Tour of Duty

A damaged veteran and a fatherless boy in America the unbeautiful.

The Ha-Ha

By Dave King

Little, Brown, 340 pp., $23.95

• the off-chance you don't know, a ha-ha's no laughing matter. It's a retaining wall sunk in a ditch. Seen one way, it keeps farm animals -- cows, sheep -- in their place, away from the main house. Seen the opposite way, it offers the homeowner an unbroken view across his property. In short, it's an illusion, a lie of the landscape.

In Dave King's accomplished debut novel, the ha-ha's no laughing matter either. It's on the grounds of a convent in some unnamed Midwestern city, and it's a dangerous opportunity for army veteran Howard Kapostash, the grounds-keeper, to go right over the edge. He may thrill to feeling airborne on his riding mower as he climbs the ha-ha's bank, but at its height he risks toppling into the traffic of the highway below. He's got his reasons to risk it though.

Back when Howie was drafted at the age of 18, and only 16 days into his tour of Vietnam, his guiding lieutenant (who was stoned) wandered off to look at a flower and stepped on a land mine, which killed the lieutenant, injured another soldier, and sent Howie (also stoned) flying, then crashing with a hematoma in his left temporal lobe. He was in a coma. Then he was in rehab, but he gave up on therapy when he failed to make real progress after years of trying. Today, decades later, he's off the acid he used to drop, but he still can't remember properly (anomia), he still can't read or write properly (alexia), and he still can't speak properly (the product of adynamia). He also suffers from a deep dislike of confrontation and "emotional volatility" -- a distinct disadvantage for this self-described "king of control." Weightless on that convent's John Deere (and toying with suicide on that ha-ha) is about the one thrill the guy's got left in life. It sure beats having to handle Sylvia Mohr.

Sylvia's a real user -- of cocaine and of anybody mistaken enough to respond to her incessant whining and unpredictable mood swings. She's also an ex-artist with a mean streak and Howie's one and only ex-girlfriend from high school. (Never mind his subsequent history hiring cut-rate hookers.)

When Sylvia is forced by her sister in Chicago into drug rehab, her 9-year-old, fatherless, semi-African-American son, Ryan, needs a home and an adult on hand. Howie's the man, and for two months his household's the place. Laurel (who rents a room from Howie) is the fortysomething Vietnamese-turned-Texan who heads the kitchen and makes sure the bills get paid. Harrison and Steve (aka Nit and Nat, or is it Nat and Nit?) are the thirtysomething house-painters ("not bad people, just stupid and untested," according to Howie), who rent the remaining bedrooms. But Ryan is Howie's to look after -- forget the scary scar sunk in Howie's forehead, forget Howie's unintelligible barkings and wordless gesturings, and forget that Ryan is equally, initially uncommunicative and given to angry outbursts.

There's more and it's worse, however: flashbacks to Howie's deceased alcoholic father (his mother a shadowy figure); Howie's run-in with Sister Amity after he jeopardizes the life of Ryan on that riding mower; Howie's run-in with a homeless Vietnam vet, a man Howie in one scene beats to a bloody pulp and in a subsequent scene scares into the path of an oncoming car; Howie's multiple run-ins with Sylvia, who, even out of rehab, remains a real piece of work; and Howie's brief run-in with the law and a team of clueless pyschiatrists. Thank God, then, for Ryan's Little League baseball team, which does both boy and man some temporary good. Thank Laurel too for seeing through to Howie's better nature, which is kindness itself ... Howie the end product of some very raw deals. Howie the dreamer and something of a poet.

Author Dave King sets himself a tough task measuring out this much high drama inside one first-time novel. Not the least of his difficulties is leading off with a character who cannot make his good intentions known despite his buried rage against those whose burdens, he thinks, are lighter than his own. The frustration is Howie's, but it's readers' too.

Ours as well: America the unbeautiful unable or unwilling to face the scar of Vietnam on a generation entering into middle age amid broken families and newfangled families. In The Ha-Ha, no joke, it's the well-rendered lay of the land. •

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