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The Ha-Ha (2005)

The Ha-Ha (2005)

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3.59 of 5 Votes: 3
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little, brown and company

About book The Ha-Ha (2005)

Although the title might lead one to think that it's funny, this book was described to me as "depressing." In fact, the title refers to a type of hidden retaining wall, rather than laughter. Either way, though, I wouldn't describe the book depressing myself, aside from the steep slide downward toward the end.Rather, I'd say this book is astonishingly hopeful. Our main character has overcome a great deal of adversity, and managed to make a life for himself despite an injury that has left him unable to speak or to read easily. He has overcome addiction and the death of parents. He has made a life for himself, and achieved an equilibrium largely characterized by his detachment from the people around him.But when his high school sweetheart asks him to take in her 9-year-old son, Ryan, while she goes to rehab, he finds that they are able to form a bond. But perhaps this emotional reawakening is not all that Howard thinks it will be. Inevitably, though, Ryan must return to his mother, and Howard finds his newly constructed world unraveling.This is the depressing part of the book, which perhaps is more drawn out than it needed to be. Again, Howard must struggle, but this time, instead of finding solace in solitude, Howard is able to turn to the relationships he formed through Ryan and find comfort in companionship.

This book has real heart. It is a well-written and moving story of Howard, a man wounded in Vietnam who can't speak or write, and how taking care of the 9-year old son of a dear friend touches him much more than he expects. I found in the author interview that Dave King is also a poet, and it shows in his writing. His words are well chosen and evoke a poignant response. For instance, here are a couple of sentences of a description of Howard watching the 9-year old play baseball: "Suddenly I realize how parents become idiots: for the present, my woes with Timothy and Sylvia are forgotten, and I want to call out Ryan's name, blow kisses, and make boisterous jokes 'til he turns around. ... The moment is mine, and the blue sky casts a golden light."I also liked how the author makes us *live* the story through Howard. He doesn't go into long descriptions of why things are the way they are; we just live them through Howard's first person experiences and actions. And, it is through Howard's experiences and actions that you understand some of what he suffers.Well worth it.

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I really wanted to like Howie; I wanted to root for him as an underdog; I wanted to feel his pain and isolation . . . but I didn't.Howard and Sylvia are high school sweethearts. She, the free spirited, beautiful artist, and he, the slow and steady dutiful, only child. But then Howie goes to war, lasting 16 days in the jungle before he is nearly killed by a mortar. Alive, but with a horrible head wound, Howie has lost the ability to speak, read and write. In the next twenty years, he establishes a routine, but depressing life, while Sylvia has become a drug addict.When Sylvia is forced into rehab, Howie becomes the unlikely guardian of Ryan, Sylvia's 9-year old bi-racial son (father unknown). Add in Howard's housemates Laurel, Harrison and Stevie, and watch the unlikely dynamic unfurl.All in all, it is probably close to what this life might be like for this cast of characters, but I wanted more. I wanted more depth and consistency . . . but then again, maybe it is a true commentary of what we don't know about traumatic brain injury and PTSD.

I originally bought this book for Dan at a yard sale last summer but ended up reading it myself this summer. It's a sentimental tale of a mute Vietnam war veteran who must care for a boy while his mother's recovering from a drug problem. King does a good job of helping the reader to empathize with the narrator's frustrations as he struggles to communicate with the people around him and build more meaningful relationships. King is also skilled at tracking the mundane chores and behaviors of daily life and making them fairly engaging to read. It certainly helps that the narrator spends a lot of time talking about delicious food. What King needs to work on, should he write other novels, is pacing. The plot pokes along for a couple hundred pages--a baseball game here, a building project there, a hot pancake breakfast over there--and then suddenly throws the characters into a profound crisis and gets them out of it in about 60 pages. It was rather like standing out in right field, getting distracted and sluggish from the warm sunshine, only to have a baseball fall from the sky and hit you on the head.

With its fantastic characters (especially our narrator, Howard, a Vietnam vet who can neither speak nor read post-injury), spots of humor and a note of redemption, this novel tells the story of one good damaged man and his coming to terms with his own need to give and receive love. It also raised larger issues of how all of us communicate with and (often) misunderstand one another. It made me aware of how easy it is to misinterpret others' motivations. It reminded me of the need to suspend judgment, even when--maybe especially when--something looks on the surface like an open-shut case.

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