Sunday, March 06, 2005

Finding his voice
First-time novelist scores with The Ha-Ha, the tale of a speechless Vietnam vet.

By Chauncey Mabe
Books Editor

March 6, 2005

Dave King, author of the stand-out first novel The Ha-Ha, is having very little trouble adjusting to fame, if only because a series of coincidences regarding his name and the title of his book have conspired to preserve his anonymity.

"I have a common name and an uncommon title," King jokes by phone from his weekend home in Hudson, N.Y. "Almost everything is cause for staying awake at night and worrying."

Since The Ha-Ha appeared in January, King has discovered just how common his name is. In the world of music alone, it is shared by a Connecticut-based singer-songwriter, a British custom guitar-maker, a jazz drummer in Minneapolis, and a Kentucky-born jazz and rock bass player, all notable in their fields.

That's not counting the undertakers, real estate agents, engineering professors and deputy sheriffs named "Dave King," many with their own sites on the Internet.

"I don't know much about the musicians, but these things come up when you try to have a Web site," says King, who wanted "Mine is, which was the closest I could get."

Then there's David Kirby, a distinguished poet at Florida State University, who in 2003 published a collection titled -- you guessed it -- The Ha-Ha. Indeed, King was heartbroken when, six years into the composition of his novel, he opened The New York Times to find a review of Kirby's book.

"I decided the world is big enough for both of us to use that title, which I was pretty committed to by that point," says the Brooklyn-based King, who will be featured this week at the Broward County Library Foundation's Night of Literary Feasts/Day of Literary Lectures. "I love David Kirby's poetry very much. I hope readers aren't confused and like us both. I might feel differently if I didn't have so much respect for his work."

Thanks to snowballing sales and plaudits for The Ha-Ha, King probably won't have to lose sleep much longer. Reviews have ranged from favorable to ecstatic, with one comparing the author to Michael Cunningham (The Hours). Warner Bros. optioned the movie rights late last month for Akiva Goldsman, the screenwriter whose credits include A Beautiful Mind.

Goldsman would seem to be the perfect scribe to adapt King's novel, with its story of a brain-damaged Vietnam veteran who, unable to speak or write, is drawn out of isolation when his high-school sweetheart asks him to care for her 9-year-old son while she goes through cocaine rehab.

"The success of The Ha-Ha makes me say that following my bliss has been a great thing," King says. "But I know many writers who've written wonderful books and not gotten this kind of acclaim. I'm feeling lucky and I take the praise seriously, because I tried to write a serious book, but I'm not under any illusion it's the best book out there."

Art and business

King, 49, began his professional life not as a writer but as an artist. Growing up in suburban Cleveland, where he read Interview and Rolling Stone magazines, all he wanted was to move to New York, with its then-thriving punk music scene.

"I couldn't get out of the Midwest fast enough," he says. "Now, of course, I feel very fond and sentimental about Cleveland. My book is set in an unnamed city that has a lot in common with Cleveland. But back then I wanted more excitement than I could get in a suburb."

After a couple of unfocused years of college, King found Cooper Union, where he earned undergraduate degrees in science and art in 1980 and joined the New York art world. "I was very active if not well-known," he says. "I went to the parties."

A few years as a struggling fine artist led King and his partner, Franklin Tartaglioni, to start a decorative arts business specializing in trompe l'oeil and murals.

"We were surprisingly successful at that," King says. "We did work at the White House during the Reagan years, at Blair House, at the State Department and the Metropolitan Museum. We had a lot of residential clients, including celebrities, but I think it would be bad form to name them."

King remembers the time as "the Bonfire of the Vanities years," but painting pretty pictures all day for Masters of the Universe did not leave him much energy to paint seriously nights and weekends. He was astonished to find how much he liked the business side of things, and how good he was at it.

"For awhile I was so excited about how well the business was going, but then I realized that I was not much of a fine art painter anymore," King says. "I sat down and questioned what I wanted from life. I'm good at taking assessments and coming up with five-year plans."

Disability in the family

Deciding he still needed to be creative, King set out to become a writer. He enrolled in some courses with The Writers Voice at the West Side YMCA in Manhattan, where he studied with Amy Hempel and Melvin Jules Bukeit, both of whom became his mentors. His short stories began appearing in small magazines, he got encouraging rejections from The New Yorker, and he found an agent.

"Things seemed to be moving along," King says, "then one day Melvin said to me if I wanted to think of myself as a writer I'd have to make a choice between business and writing. I took that to heart and began extricating myself from the business, which gave me enough money to go to Columbia for a couple of years and get an MFA in 2000."

The Ha-Ha was King's thesis, although he wrote five more drafts before selling it to Little, Brown. His desire to write about disability arose from family history; King's autistic older brother, Hank, never spoke a word between the day of his birth and his death in an institution in 1993. But King did not want to produce a fictionalized biography of his brother -- as a creative writer, he wanted to make stuff up -- so he imagined what Hank's life might have been had he been born healthy and suffered injuries in Vietnam that left him mentally intact but unable to speak, read or write.

Autism, King knows, is a hot topic at the moment, as opposed to the late '40s and early '50s when it "profoundly isolating and very painful" for his family.

"I read the stories in the Times, the essays of Oliver Sachs and Temple Grandin and all that stuff, but I think probably a lot of people have more to say about it than I do," he says. "Families dealing with it now have access to all the latest research. I grew up in a different time. I was the only kid I knew who had a sibling with a disability."

King was aware of what he calls "the potential for real mawkishness and sentimentality" inherent in a story about a brain-damaged man and his redemptive relationship with a child.

"But I was intrigued about going close to that without indulging in cheap sentiment," he says. "I guess that's why it took seven years to write the book."

Another problem King faced was the grimness of the material, which is told from the interior point of view of Howard Kapostash, the speechless hero.

"I tried to give Howard a certain amount of dry wit, and an ability to experience pleasure and love and joy," he says. "Above all, he has a real decency and sincerity I hope moves people."

A particular rage

Although King is a gay man -- he and Tartaglioni have been together 30 years -- he chose to make Howard heterosexual.

"There were particular reasons why I did not make Howard gay," he says. "For me, fiction is about the imagination. I wanted him to be a real American Everyman with a particular individual rage and discontentment attributable to his disability and the war. It would have been distracting to also give him any gay anger or rage."

King did not find it difficult to place himself in the shoes of a heterosexual protagonist.

"Love is love and desire is desire," he says. "Obviously there are differences, but I hope there are more similarities than differences about what longing and love and rejection and pain feel like for a gay and a straight person."

Chauncey Mabe can be reached at or 954-356-4710.

Copyright © 2005, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Finding his voice: South Florida Sun-Sentinel

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