I’m always on the lookout for the emergence of new American literary talent. My contemporary literary “companions” such as John Updike (who passed away five years ago now) and Philip Roth (who has chosen to retire from creative writing) have been silenced, although I still manage to find novels or short stories to reread or even read for the first time by them, ones I’ve missed in the past.
A couple years ago I came across two first novels by promising young writers,:ones I will follow with interest. I said the following about Eric Puchner’s Even if the Dream Isn’t Real The Dreamers Are: Here is a serious contemporary writer who knows how to tell a tale, paint a picture of American life through his characters, make us feel moved, walking the line through the comic-tragic, drawing us into something important about family relationships. Only two months later I read another first The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint by Brady Udall saying, It took a younger generation, Jonathan [my son] to be precise, to introduce me to some fresh, intelligent and extremely moving literature, not only Eric Puchner's Model Home which I thought was a fabulous first novel, and now his second recommendation, another first novel, The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint by Brady Udall which was published in 2001 (Puchner’s novel is more recent, 2010).
These are extraordinary first novels, major literary talent. Udall has published his follow up, widely praised as well, The Lonely Polygamist which I have yet to read. Interestingly, both the Puchner and Udall novels are set in the west and southwest ….perhaps the new home of the American dream or the American nightmare. However, the two novels differ greatly in their perspectives and voice, Puchner reminding me somewhat of Updike, Cheever, and Yates, while Udall’s The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint is a little Huck Finn, Oliver Twist, Rule of the Bone and The Book of Mormon – oh, and throw in the Paul Newman film, Hombre, about a half breed Apache….He is an orphan but like Oliver Twist has to go through a horrific childhood before emerging into the sunshine of a loving caretaker.
In that same entry I reviewed Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn whose main character Lionel Essrog, has Tourette's syndrome, and is impaired as is King’s protagonist.
So behind the times as usual, I just read another worthy first novel, an extraordinarily sensitive work, Dave King’s The Ha-Ha, published almost ten years ago, this one recommended to me by my friend, Mary, who lives in Minnesota, and found me on my blog last year after a mere interval of some 44 years from when I had hired her fresh out of school for the publishing company I then worked for. Towards the bottom of this entry is the email she sent, telling me that I was her first mentor and perhaps changed her life. Pretty heady stuff for both of us and since then we have struck up an email relationship of some substance, recommending books to one another and generally keeping in touch.
She revealed that soon after I hired her I had recommended that she read Jerzy Kosinski's The Painted Bird, ironically, his first novel (written in English) and also bearing a small resemblance to The Ha-Ha. How this novel went under my radar screen, I shall never know, but I am indebted to Mary for bringing it to my attention, so the teacher becomes the student.
It is everything a good novel should be, intensely readable, one you can hardly put down, while dealing with huge themes in the lives of ordinary people who simply are trying to survive and connect. It is also a coming of age novel, with hints of Huckleberry Finn. Spoiler alert, I discuss aspects of the novel below which reveal things you might want to discover for yourself if you should chose to read it.
It is the story of Howard Kapostash, “Howie” and how his life is changed, not once but twice by seismic events, one a war and the other love. The tidal wave of the Vietnam War continues to ripple throughout our lives and especially through its veterans. The “ha-ha” of the novel (a boundary wall concealed in a ditch so that it does not intrude upon the view) from which the novel derives its ironic title is a metaphor for the barriers Howie faces and a celebration of the individual will as he navigates them.
Dalton Trumbo's Johnny Got His Gun floated through my mind while reading the novel, Trumbo’s portrayal of the destruction of an individual by war (WW I) being the most extreme rendering ever written (and filmed). In a sense, Howie bears some resemblance to Trumbo’s Joe Bonham, a soldier who is a quadruple amputee, trapped in his own body with no way to move or to communicate. Howie, after only 16 days in Vietnam is hurled into the air by a land mine, and emerges brain damaged, but with therapy he is finally able to resume his day to day physical activities (unlike Bonham), able to take care of himself, although permanently unable to speak, read, or write. He returns to his parents’ house where he grew up, at first descending into drugs and self pity until finally resurrecting himself, inheriting their home after his parents die and some money and taking in borders to help defray the cost of running it. One of these is a young Asian woman, Laura, who makes soups for a living, using the well-supplied kitchen in Howie’s home. Laura becomes his secretary in a sense, taking care of the bills, assisting him to continue to live somewhat independently on his own. She does this in return for a rent-free residence and because she feels admiration, perhaps even love, for Howie.
Howie makes a life as a mute, working at a nearby convent, mowing the lawn, occasionally playing a game with his John Deere tractor, coming precariously close to the ha-ha. He stays in touch with his first and only love, Sylvia. They shared one idyllic, sex-filled weekend before he went to Vietnam but now are only friends. Sylvia has a drug addiction, as well as a 9-1/2 old son, Ryan, who has a nameless, absent black father, so Sylvia and Ryan are two other characters trying to scratch out a life.
The action at this point is fomented by Sylvia’s sister who performs an intervention, hauling Sylvia off to a rehab center to kick her drug habit. But what to do with Ryan? Without notice, Howie finds that he will be Ryan’s caretaker for an indeterminate amount of time, two damaged people, one a mute and the other a confused angry young boy who will have to live in this non-traditional household while his mother recovers. Howie’s covert love for Sylvia makes it impossible for him to refuse.
King beautifully summarizes how Howie has arrived at this point: It’s all the things that I've gone down, everything that didn't happen to me that I always thought would. It's being an exemplar of the admirably rebuilt life, the days spent zigging a holy lawnmower around paradise, the nights with strangers in my home. It's having a child on furlough from another family, from Sylvia's family it's wanting to do the best I can. Pretending I don't still suffer from nightmares that set me bellowing in my sleep, while Laurel and the others pretend they don't hear. 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. It's wondering by what queer twist I survived, and why I was given sixteen days and a lifetime of bleak endurance. It's the futility, always, of being understood.
And so the novel then unfolds, how our mute protagonist who has led a lonely love-starved life for so long, and how the nine and a half-year-old son of a former girlfriend he must suddenly care for change each other. They warily bond through baseball (another metaphor for bringing them into society) and along with Howie's roommates they cobble out a nontraditional family as they wait Sylvia's emergence from rehab.
Howie’s feelings for Sylvia, if anything, have deepened while she’s in rehab. He even fantasizes a life with her upon her return when he checks on her house, walking though it imagining how things could be, knowing full well, they will never be like this: All these photos and keepsakes are so familiar that I rarely give them thought when I come in. In my mind I walk through the door and this is my house and I call out, “Honey I'm home!”—a phrase so familiar it's become a joke. Sylvia doesn't answer but I hear her chuckle. She's in the kitchen making sandwiches. There’s a knife-tap on the mayonnaise jar and the movement of the shadow on wallpaper. I take a breath. The house smells fresh, it's summer and we keep our windows open. I don't smoke a pipe. I brought our boy back from baseball practice, and I can't wait to tell my wife how he hustled when he hit that double. “You should've seen it,” I’ll say, and give her a peck. “Beat the throw by a mile!” Then Sylvia will say she'll catch a game soon, and that's enough to look forward to, because really it's father-son time this Saturday morning sports thing and that's how we like it.
Consequences of actions hang heavily over the novel, how Howie has developed a certain dignity in spite of his travails and then how they unravel as Ryan's mother's impending arrival approaches, finding himself almost in the same condition as when he returned from Vietnam, a victim of a war. He knows any relationship with Sylvia is impossible, but he realizes how achingly he will miss Ryan: Already my dream life with Sylvia has become a chimera, patently unrealistic and foreign to the world I inhabit, the self I am. I can feel myself packing it up for storage, just as I did several decades ago. But what I can't stow so easily away is the prospect of waking tomorrow with no Ryan in the house and as I listen to the peepers pulse out their strange, orderly rhythm, I don't know what I’ll do. I don't remember how I lived before….As for the other stuff -- how happy I've been and how thoroughly I love him; how he's giving me something I never ever have known -- all this I hope he understands already, or will figure out for himself as he grows older.
Ultimately, it is a tale of how people connect, amend adversity, and are held together by love. One last visit to the ha-ha by Howie in the middle of the night brings everything together:
I wonder if I should say a prayer or if I'm being influenced by the surroundings. I feel a little drunk. Through the silence the echoey whoosh of traffic below the ha ha, a sound like waves. The moon slips behind a cloud, the night is dark again and I decide to pray something that's not a prayer so much as an imagined wish; and I wish the first thing that bubbles into my head. I wish for Ryan to be well loved his entire life. That's the key to happiness I think. I wonder what Sylvia wishes for Ryan; then my mind is pulled from my prayer, and I think that for a few weeks he was well loved by all of us, and we were loved in return. I was loved by Sylvia once –I’ll always believe that -- and I was loved more than I deserved by my mother and dad. And I loved them. I wonder what kind of tally this makes for one life but I have my excuses. I’d loved more people if I hadn’t been injured. I never knew why I survived, but I was glad I made it. I didn't imagine any other way to feel. There’s the period to be proud of, two years of autonomy, sobriety, and endurance. Why does nothing stand out?
I’ve quoted liberally in parts of this entry to reveal King’s profoundly sensitive writing style. This is an exceptionally moving, meaningful first novel, an unqualified success.