A comical number of sentences in Dave King’s The Ha-Ha begin with head-thought: “I think of,” or variants “I wonder,” “I worry.” This is the mind announcing itself—and then taking it one step further, performative “speech” act on loop—forgivable given that the narrator, Howard Kapostash, is a 16-days-returned Vietnam vet who, due to a brain injury, can no longer actually speak. The post-Vietnam years have rolled out their graces sparingly, with great compression: hallucinogens and paid-for sex; eating, sleeping, and lawn mowing, from which the “ha-ha” of the title, a landscaper’s trick in which a boundary wall is concealed in a ditch, derives.
And then a child is thrown into the mix. Howard’s pre-war girlfriend goes to rehab, leaving her son, Ryan, with him. When the kid leaves, the near loss of what’s best termed possibility (for happiness, surprise, needfulness and fulfillment) is devastating. Certain low points make an appearance (failed acid run at a black barbershop, bum head-bashing), but with consideration (the bum as alter ego, as that uniquely American monument to political, personal failure). It’s a slow anti-seduction: “The world has shifted, and one more something has switched open within me. I recognize the feeling because switches have been opening inside me for decades.”
The book, bravely, defends any cheesiness to the end, which is one kind of victory. That emotions are basically pure is a good thing, especially when there’s so little else; that they’re adamantly assertive could be what saves us (an interior life protesting an ex’s “musclehunk boytoy” is useless, but given enough abuse, the interior not only breaks out but comes clean). Still, the paused, ethereal, ha-ha moment—the moment before the fall, when Howard, 18, steps on a land mine—makes us wish, rightly or wrongly, for something besides a novel of darkness or a novel of redemption.