By Lynn Carey
CONTRA COSTA TIMES
IN PALM BEACH, the weather’s fine — especially for Dave King. The author is there with all expenses paid. It’s one of the perks that goes with writing a novel with the wide appeal that “The Ha-Ha” has.
So, he’s staying at the Breakers, where he and his partner of 30 years retire after sunset to the elegant bar for gimlets that “cost the same as our mortgage,” he says with a laugh.
That’s the way life is right now for King, who at age 49 had his first novel published to wide acclaim. Now 50, he appears to be living a jet-setter’s life; after Palm Beach, he jetted to Walnut Creek to attend the 10th Times Book Club Author Gala.
King has just enough time to return home to Brooklyn (just down the street from where “Moonstruck” was filmed) to teach a week of English classes at Baruch College. Then he jets off for another leg of his book tour, this time in Cleveland, near the home where he grew up.
All this fanfare goes with the territory now that the paperback — which first came out just about two months ago — is already in its third printing.
The appeal of the book is in the Everyman main character — well, Everyman in his thoughts and dreams, perhaps, but Howard can’t speak, read or write, due to a traumatic brain injury in Vietnam. It makes communication difficult, to say the least.
On a subconscious level, Howard’s character might have to do with King’s brother, Hank, who was born severely autistic.
“I try to stress the fact that Howard is not an attempt to give voice to my brother. It’s a question of loss; Hank was born with his disability, and Howard acquired his.”
Family reading time
King’s surviving relatives, his sister and father (the youngest prosecutor in the Nuremberg trials), fought over who got to read the book first when it was published. “Each would call me, telling me how far they were. My sister would say, ‘Daddy doesn’t like Sylvia, but I can understand her position.'”
Sylvia, King says, was one of the hardest parts of writing the book. “In some ways, she’s the villain of the piece, but that wouldn’t work if she weren’t somehow justified. Howard is frustrating to be with.”
So, why didn’t Howard learn some way to communicate, to make him less exasperating?
“I think he got frustrated. He made some progress early on, and it was thought that he could learn to speak if he really applied himself. And as an author, it wouldn’t have served my needs if Howard had been able to communicate.”
King says he made Howard’s roommate, Laurel, Vietnamese on a whim, though at first he thought it seemed a little heavy-handed and ironic. “But it could happen, and what the heck! With all the characters, everyone was trying to escape a label. Howard, disabled.
Sylvia, a drug addict. Ryan was trying to figure out if he was a black kid or a white kid or something in-between. So the idea of having Laurel have a hybrid history — her appearance is Vietnamese, but she talks like a Texan and wears cowboy boots — added to my novel of diversity.”
King has another book to crank out in the next year or so, tentatively scheduled to be released on Feb. 14, 2008.
“My editor chose Valentine’s Day because there’s a Cupid element to the story,” King explains. The novel visits some Henry Jamesian themes of naive Americans in Europe.
History of the title
Coincidentally, the American Academy of Arts and Letters offered him a year-long fellowship in Rome that begins in September. His partner, the muralist and fine artist Franklin Tartaglione, will visit periodically to work on drawings.
King was also a painter for a time; he went through a bohemian phase when he first went to New York in his early 20s. But it was in an architecture course where he first heard the term “ha-ha” used to describe an optical illusion.
At first, he threw it in his novel to break up the bucolic landscape of the convent where Howard works. “But it became increasingly important to the plot. The fissure in the landscape was like the fissure in Howard’s life that hasn’t been dealt with.”
Howard’s life is supposedly heading to the big screen as a film, with Oscar-winning screenwriter Akiva Goldsman making his directorial debut. Both Johnny Depp and Brad Pitt have expressed interest in the main role, King says. “Last I heard, the movie team was going full-speed ahead.”