The Ha Ha is an excellent novel about a Viet Nam vet with a severe brain injury, leaving him unable to speak. Thirty years after returning from Viet Nam, Howard Kapostash suddenly finds himself taking care of 9-year-old Ryan, whose mother Sylvia (Howard’s high school girlfriend) is in rehab for a cocaine addiction. Howard is middle-aged. His parents are dead. He lives in the house he grew up in with a detached group of boarders. Laurel, the only female, is a 30-something owner of a small gourmet soup business and helps Howard maintain the house. Two 30ish house painters, Steve and Harrison are new boarders.
Written through Howard’s viewpoint, this is a story of how Ryan comes to be the force that joins these people together, how Howard struggles to care for Ryan and how all the characters assume new roles. Howard’s actions are often well-meant, but several are based on terrible judgment and lead to bad results, leaving Howard unable to explain himself.
Howard is the kind of character you like despite his flaws and poor decisions. I was cheering for him all along. As Sylvia’s rehab continues, despite two disastrous visits, Howard imagines a new life with Sylvia and Ryan. All hopes unravel upon Sylvia’s return and Howard begins a downward and destructive spiral. These actions and the nagging question of why Howard never tried to learn sign language or another form of communication create a range of emotions in the reader. Anger for acting foolishly, for not caring enough to learn how to communicate, disgust for wallowing in drugs for years after his injury. Love for how much he cares about Ryan and how he steps up to the challenge.
The ending allows the reader to imagine the future and I still find myself wondering how Howard is doing.
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