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Peel back the made-for-TV-movie premise of Dave King's The Ha-Ha and you'll find a shrewd, engrossing, and occasionally gritty first novel in the tradition of Jane Smiley. Howard is a brain-damaged Vietnam vet who can't speak or write, but who has managed to establish a reasonably good life in his small Midwestern hometown. In fact, Howard's chief limitation isn't his silence but his lingering romantic attachment to his high school girlfriend, Sylvia, now the drug-addicted single mother of a nine-year-old boy named Ryan (not Howard's child). Accustomed to Howard's devotion--and equally accustomed to rejecting his love, like a campfire she pees on again and again--Sylvia more or less dumps Ryan on him when she is forced to enter rehab. Yes, the handicapped vet must forge a relationship with the sullen fatherless boy. With material as Hallmark-tinged like this, it's only through vivid, honest, and far from syrupy characterization that King keeps sentimentality at bay.You can predict what happens when the gruff Howard begins to coach Little League (aw, shucks), but not his ferocious reaction to Sylvia's eventual betrayal.A skillful debut with several surprises. --Regina Marler