King of the World
By Justin Ravitz
Check out Dave King's resume: painter, cab driver, teacher, nude artist's 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. Howard's 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?
I've 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 Vietnam'I didn't, but in fact it was Hank who demographically should have been more part of that population. Now, there's 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 we're 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 don't have any children of our own, although we did talk about it. At this point, I'm going to be 50 years old and Frank is going to be 60. I'm 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, we've 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 I've 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.
Here's an idea that has absolutely no scholarship behind it: Gay people have been very, very involved in the arts, and we're very proud of the role we've played in the culture of this country. Perhaps one reason for that has been the freedom that we've had. I don't know whether that really stands up to scrutiny, but it's 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?
I've been lucky in that I'm close to my family, but I also have a really large group of friends who have served as a pretty strong family for me. That's the family that this book is about, the group that forms around this child over the course of the book's 300 pages. The only vision of the typical, non-divorced nuclear family is in the past, in Howard's 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.