Check out Dave Kings resume: painter, cab driver, teacher, nude artists model. From here on out, the baby-faced, openly gay 49-year-old will most likely be known as an uncommonly gifted author, thanks to his debut novel The Ha-Ha (Little, Brown, $23.95). Already creating a buzz, The Ha-Ha is narrated by Howard Kapostash, a lonely Vietnam vet whose wartime injuries have left him mute for three decades. Howards sad, silent life is upended when his troubled ex-girlfriend dumps her 9-year-old son in his care. The revelations and transformations that follow are deeply moving, unexpected, and authentic, with gorgeously rendered prose, surprising insight, and zero schmaltz. Over enchiladas, I talked at length with Dave, who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., with his partner of 29 years, Frank.
What inspired your protagonist and his disability?
Ive been interested in disability for a long time: what it means to be normal, to not be normal, what average, representational, and typical mean in our society. And people who are specially or differently abled seem to address that question. But more specifically, my older brother Hank was born profoundly autistic and never spoke in his lifetime. When he died in 1993 of a brain tumor, I began thinking about the substance of his life. One of the things that struck me was that if he had been normally abled, he would have had to go to Vietnam. I grew up thinking that I would go to VietnamI didnt, but in fact it was Hank who demographically should have been more part of that population. Now, theres a translation factor, of course: Hank was born with his disability and Howard has an acquired disability. He starts out as a very typical Everyman in the Midwest and then is injured in Vietnam.
Which makes him a really heartbreaking casualty of war.
I could have made him a victim of a traffic accident or a crime or any number of things. [But] as I continued to write, and as I researched Vietnam, I just began to think that one of the things I wanted to address was the terrible cost of war. This is especially poignant now, because were once again at war, a war I oppose.
Overnight, Howard becomes a caretaker to 9-year-old Ryan. He has to deal with instant parenthood and a complete lack of comfort and familiarity with kids. What are your own experiences with children?
My partner, Frank, and I dont have any children of our own, although we did talk about it. At this point, Im going to be 50 years old and Frank is going to be 60. Im concerned about bringing a child into our home who would be going to college when one of his fathers is 80 and the other is 70. At the same time, weve had a rich life. The fact that I have not had kids has allowed me to change my life in many ways. I was a painter for 10 years, I ran a small business. At the point when many people were having children, I was able to leave my business and go to graduate school and take on an enormous financial burden, which I never would have done as a parent. And Ive been lucky also to have a lot of kids in our lives [through friends and family]. All of these children have been really important and inspiring to me, and a number of them are thanked on the last page of the book.
Sounds like an ideal compromise.
Heres an idea that has absolutely no scholarship behind it: Gay people have been very, very involved in the arts, and were very proud of the role weve played in the culture of this country. Perhaps one reason for that has been the freedom that weve had. I dont know whether that really stands up to scrutiny, but its worth contemplating. In my case, it has allowed me to develop slowly, take my time. I took seven years writing this novel because I could. I think if I had been paying preschool charges, clothing a child, going to amusement parks, buying toys, and throwing birthday parties, I would have had to go out there and earn a buck.
Did you set out to say something about the structure and nature of family?
Ive been lucky in that Im close to my family, but I also have a really large group of friends who have served as a pretty strong family for me. Thats the family that this book is about, the group that forms around this child over the course of the books 300 pages. The only vision of the typical, non-divorced nuclear family is in the past, in Howards memory of his own parents. Everybody is either a single father or a mother whose husband is far away or a lesbian family. That was intentional.