In one seemingly insignificant moment in "The Ha-Ha," protagonist Howie Kapostash spots a squirrel and briefly ponders what ideas might be...

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“The Ha-Ha”

by Dave King

Little, Brown, 340 pp., $23.95

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In one seemingly insignificant moment in “The Ha-Ha,” protagonist Howie Kapostash spots a squirrel and briefly ponders what ideas might be swirling around in the silent critter’s head.

It’s only a half-paragraph in Dave King’s graceful debut novel, but it’s a telling metaphor: People who encounter Howie, a Vietnam veteran rendered mute by a war injury, often wonder the same thing.

Written with eloquent simplicity and emotional power, “The Ha-Ha” takes us into the mind of a noble but frustrated man whose thoughts and words are a mystery to those around him.

Howie, still mentally sharp despite his inability to speak, lives a lonely existence as a part-time convent handyman. Having long forsaken any notions of romance or family, he stumbles into parenthood when a friend asks him to take care of her 9-year-old son, Ryan, while she enlists in a drug-rehab program.

The boy’s presence transforms Howie’s drab life into a daily reawakening. As he guides Ryan from school to haircuts to baseball practices, Howie emerges from his postwar funk and becomes a father figure.

Warm-hearted outcasts are relatively common as literary characters — think Boo Radley, Quasimodo, Lennie Small — but Howie is more complicated than any of those lovable simpletons. His injury sometimes pushes him into episodes of dark, dangerous behavior, but thanks to King’s skillful narration, we understand why.

King largely avoids rookie mistakes in his first novel, but much of the book suffers from a plodding pace, and some of the dialogue is too earnest to seem natural. The story concludes with a frantic spree of overly dramatic events, followed by a somewhat far-fetched resolution.

But King’s debut is a winning effort. If “The Ha-Ha’s” rich characters and deeply human tone are a preview of the author’s future work, readers have much to look forward to.