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issue 47: March - April 2005

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The Ha-Ha by Dave King: Little, Brown and Company, 2005

It doesn’t sound promising: a disabled Vietnam vet bonding with a nine-year-old mulatto boy who will turn his life around. In fact, when I tried to express my enthusiasm for the novel at a local café, my friends looked at me blankly. But if you make the leap into this dangerous made-for-TV territory, Dave King’s debut novel will not disappoint. There’s no cushy feel-good ending, no feeling of being manipulated, no formula apart from the obvious male-bonding set-up, and even that is handled with such clarity and honestly that there is no room for a single Hallmark moment.

It’s a simple, purely character-driven plot: Howie Kopostash is a Vietnam vet who, on day 16 of landing in Vietnam at age 18, was hit by an explosion that left him near dead. He slowly recovered physically, carrying only an ugly, soft and puffy scar on his forehead. But after successfully relearning simple tasks, such as how to dress himself, he is still left without the power of speech; reading is nearly impossible as all the letters jumble; and writing eludes him entirely. He communicates through odd grunts and hand and body gestures. People who don’t know him assume he is not of normal intelligence, but he is.

Howie has inherited his large family home, and to make ends meet he rents rooms to three people: two house painters - twenty-something slackers whom Howie thinks of as Nit and Nat - and a Vietnamese-American woman from Texas who makes her living selling homemade soup to restaurants around town. Howie works as a grounds keeper in the Contemplation Gardens, run by a group of nuns. It is here that we have the ha-ha, the 18th century invention of a ditch-like dip in the landscape which serves as a boundary to a garden without interrupting the view (a metaphorical element open to interpretation). Howie does his job well but beyond that he’s responsible to no one and relations in the household are distant and perfunctory. He’s comfortable - and that’s all he wants.

Then one day Howie receives a phone call from his pretty, blonde high-school girlfriend, Sylvia, for whom he still carries a torch. Sylvia has had several boyfriends, gotten pregnant by one and now has a nine-year-old mulatto boy, Ryan. She’s going into rehab (again) to kick a cocaine habit and tells Howie he must take Ryan while she’s away. Although Sylvia and Howie have remained in touch over the years - he mows her lawn, does repairs; in fact was with her when Ryan was born - Howie and Ryan are strangers to each other and neither is keen on the arrangement. But once the kid enters the household of estranged personalities, things begin to change, for everyone.

As this story unfolds - not always sweetly - we’re given background information on Howie: his teen romance with Sylvia, his brief and tragic tour of Vietnam, his father’s incapacity to cope with the grief over his son’s condition, etc. Howie has now built up quite a wall around himself and it’s both exhilarating and heartbreaking to witness his first real flow of emotion in 30 years. To feel his growing concern over getting Ryan to school on time and eating a good breakfast. To follow his confusion as he mistakenly takes Ryan for a haircut at a "white" salon. And to watch the painful way he tries desperately to communicate with certain adults in Ryan’s world. But what will happen when Ryan leaves the household? Where will the love go? How will Howie deal with all the pent-up rage he has been suppressing?

King deftly traces Howie’s awakening and transformation - the good, the bad and the ugly. The Ha-Ha serves as a moving reminder of the forgotten personal tragedies of war - and would make good reading for all politicians who so casually throw young troops into the line of fire for less than noble causes. But above all it speaks of the redemptive power of human connection and shows how it enables one to see the beauty in everyday life: Howie and Ryan enjoying the sunset in a nature reserve, for example.

I have read that Dave King has an autistic brother, which may account for his decision to create a mute protagonist and his ability to do so with such intelligence and insight. I failed to mention that Little League enters in for fear that might really scare one off. But take heart and take the leap. These warm, wonderful, messed-up, all-too-human characters will remain with you for a long, long time. J.A.

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Borrowed Body by Valerie Mason-John: Serpent’s Tail, UK, 2005

"I could have been born and raised in Africa. But my Spirit was in too much of a rush to be reincarnated." This is how Valerie Mason-John’s Borrowed Body opens, a novel which is concerned with questions of birth and identity, Africa and the various spirits that may inhabit a body . . . all of it characterised by a tremendous energy which hurls the reader from page to page.

Pauline Charles is a little black girl who is given up for adoption by her Nigerian mother. She is first taken on by an English family with whom she lives for three and a half years - "long enough to call someone Mummy" - before being moved to a Barnardo’s orphanage. She finds happiness of a sort here: there is a ragtag bunch of other kids, a series of more or less kindly "parents", green spaces to play in and the excitements and hurts of childhood to experience. As a Barnardo’s kid she is already different; as a black child in 1970’s rural England even more so. She is nicknamed "Minstrel" and has to endure more cruel names – Nignog and monkey – with bewilderment and hurt.

One of her strategies for overcoming her pain is through imaginary beings. There is Sparky, who manifests himself as a series of bright sparks: "He teaches me to leave my body and rise above it by hovering over me until I have the courage to float up to his coloured lights… I make contact with other sad souls who yearn to be back in the spirit world too." Then there is Annabel, an angel-type presence, who whispers words of encouragement, and becomes - as the book progresses - more and more a moral voice, exhorting Pauline to remember God. Apart from one week when she is inspired by Billy Graham, the well-known evangelical preacher of the 70s, to be "a lamb of God", Pauline on the whole hasn’t much time for God, who seems to have abandoned her.

In the second part of the book, Pauline is claimed by her mother Wanmi, who takes her to London where she tries to beat the Englishness out of her daughter, and instil "Africanness" by belts and blows. "I don’t know who I am anymore" grieves the little girl. In London, Pauline attends Edgeware Towers where, with typical courage and spirit, she quickly learns how to avoid the bullies, allying herself with other black girls, dancing to reggae instead of Showaddy Waddy. Even here though, there is rivalry between the West Indians and Africans, and Wanmi too insists on the superiority of African blacks. In one strange episode, she gets involved with a group of girls who practise Obia - black magic – in which they try to remove the "cats" or strange spirits which inhabit them.

Eventually, the effects of her mother’s almost daily beatings and humilliations are noticed at school and Pauline is sent by court order to a home where she mixes with girls who are suffering extreme traumas or have been involved in crime. This third part is called "Snake", for that is the name Pauline gives this new spirit which dominates her, "a spirit who is angry at the world". She experiences this new being as a violent hissing and thrashing inside her, tempting her into bad ways, and almost extinguishing the gentle remonstrances of her good angel, Annabel. With her tough new friends, she gets involved in shoplifting, sniffing glue in the park and speaking in West Indian slang. The Seventies have become the Eighties, and black is now cool. She is sent back to her old home in Essex but she has London in her now and Essex is far too small to hold her.

The final part of the book is a whirlwind account of her increasing pull to street life - sneaking out to clubs, shoplifting, nights sleeping rough - until eventually she is caught and sent to Borstal. Snake, it seems, has won.

Borrowed Body is a compelling book, most of all because of the spirit of the protagonist, who goes down but never completely out. Even as Pauline gets tougher, she never loses her hunger for love, for giving it or for receiving it. The energy which characterises her is also the prevailing style of the book, which perhaps becomes overwhelming in the third part, event piled upon event. It is especially in the first section, where Valerie Mason-John gives us a moving picture of orphanage life and the joys and trials of childhood, using detail as well as action, that readers will be pulled by this brave first novel. Roxanne Rowles

© 2005 The Barcelona Review
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issue 47: March - April 2005

  Short Fiction
Neil LaBute: Time-Share
Mark Anthony Jarman: Fables of the Deconstruction
Caroline Kepnes: My Son, the Priest
Pauline Masurel: Reality TV
  Picks from Back Issues
Steven Rinehart: Burning Luv
Leelila Strogov: Fatso
Jerry Portwood interviews Carlos Mayor and Eduardo Iriarte,
the Spanish translators of Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons
Pop Music and Contemporary Fiction
answers to last issue’s quiz, William Faulkner
  Book Reviews
The Ha-Ha by Dave King
Borrowed Body by Valerie Mason-John
  Regular Features
Book Reviews (all issues)
TBR Archives (authors listed alphabetically)

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