Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Real Men Can't Read

Real Men Can't Read: Gustav Hasford's A Gypsy Good Time

"Someday Agent Orange will come to eat me-there are nights when I can hear the darkness coming up the stairs." - Gustav Hasford

Gustav Hasford was born & raised in a shitkicker town in Alabama. At age 18 he went to Vietnam. He was a prodigious reader. He loved books. He love lapsed into illegality. Hasford was living in Morro Bay California when obtained a library card for the local University in San Luis Obispo. He had managed to wrack up 87 overdue books and library fines totaling 3K. The library, understandably concerned, discovered his library card contained a falsified address and social security number. The campus fuzz busted into his storage locker. They found 9,816 books in 396 cardboard boxes. At least twenty percent were stolen from libraries from the United States, England and Australia.

Hasford is the only man in history to be an Oscar Nominee while being under investigation for stealing books from college libraries. He earned a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay for Full Metal Jacket, which was based on his first, and at the time, only, published novel, The Short-Timers. The best lines from the movie are his. Hasford managed to wrestle writing credit from the grasp of Stanley Kubrick and Michael Herr, which is akin to a dog on a tricycle placing in a Formula One race. There was a talk of a warrant being out for him at the Oscar Ceremony. It didn't matter, he didn't give enough of a shit to put on a tux and show up. He turned himself into the authorities, pleaded no contest and was sentenced to six months. He published two more books and died four years later in Greece.

He published three books in his too-short life. The first two, The Short-Timers and The Phantom Blooper are companion pieces, based partially on his 10 months as a combat correspondent with the 1st Marine Division in Vietnam. In the first book, Hasford's stand-in, Private Joker, goes through basic training before being sent to Vietnam. The book ends with him mercy killing his friend from basic training. Here's a description of the jungle from another Marine combat vet, Karl Marlantes' excellent, but far more straightforward. Matterhorn: A Novel Of The Vietnam War: "Mellas felt a sleight breeze from the mountains rustling across the grass valley below him to the north. He was acutely aware of the natural world. He imagined the jungle, pulsing with life, quickly enveloping Matterhorn, Eiger, and all the other shorn hilltops, covering everything. All around him the mountains and the jungle whispered and moved, as if they were aware of his presence but indifferent to it." Now here's a description of the jungle from Hasford, captured in his bleak, minimalist, funny prose: "Humping [walking] in the rain forest is like climbing a stairway of shit in an enormous green room constructed by ogres for the confinement of monster plants." The whole book is minimalist, oblique, frightening, with streak of black humor a mile wide.

The sequel has Private Joker captured by the NVA and taken to their village. His existence with the Vietnamese as idylic as Hasford ever gets, without cloying sentiment. His prose is precise, poetic, and sparse. He observes his Vietnamese comrades; "Beyond the pagoda fifty teenaged farmers, strong young men and woman, are hard at work, chopping soggy clods of cold mud out of the jungle floor with hoes, then planting the red seeds of the future into rich black soil without saying goodbye." A similar observation amongst the Americans is just as lean, but amps the ugliness: "In two days the flying cranes will carry off the last piece of expensive American machinery and the last of the Marine grunts at Khe Sanh will sky out on gunships. Then, when night falls, the jungle will emerge from out of the darkness and will move like a black glacier across the red clay of No Man's land and will silently consume our trash-strewn fortress." Private Joker lives and sympathizes with the NVA, before he is 'rescued,' and injured by Americans. He returns to the United States, then decides to return to the Vietnam and work with the NVA as a farmer.

Both of his Vietnam books are online at the excellent www.gustavhasford.com curated by Hasford's cousin, Jason Aaron. His final book, however is more difficult to find.

Hasford's experience in Vietnam left his scarred, but his experience in Hollywood left him with a brontosaurs-scale bone to pick, and it comes out in spades in his final, an unjustly forgotten novel, A Gypsy Good Time. The book's protagonist is Dowdy Lewis, and like Hasford he's a combat vet, a book fiend, and a boozer. He works as a rare book dealer in Los Angeles. He meets a woman. Romance ensues. The romance is rapid fire Howard Hawks quips if Howard Hawks liked black humor, misanthropy, and obscenity. The hero tells a women he's trying to woo (and try to picture songbirds carrying around this on a banner held in their beaks) "I will not tolerate endless pageants of coy bullshit from parasitic dingbats." Then everything goes to shit, and the book gets hard-boiled. Its hilarious, you can find a profane howler on each page, and the book jumps in anger and indignation. Hasford has it out for the rich. They are lazy, casually evil, and filled with contempt for everyone else.The only people the are spared Hasford's considerable scorn are his partner, Red, an elderly book dealer that specializes in non-fiction first hand accounts of the old west, a drug dealer, and the homeless Vietnam vets that Lewis knows are the only people outside of the fleeting, doomed romance described with any tenderness and affection. But he really has it out for Hollywood. A woman tells our hero:

"I came to L.A. when I was fifteen. I was a runaway. I like clothes and jewels and I'm not ashamed. I was a hooker until I was sixteen. I spent five years out in Malibu, trying to suck gold out of a rich man's cock. He died of old age. In his will he didn't leave me one red cent. Now I'm in show business"

And she isn't even one of the more unsympathetic characters. Hollywood is painted as outwardly venal, unapologetically corrupt, and murderous. "Hollywood is where hopeful young people come to sell their hearts and minds for emeralds and rubies and work like dogs and get bought off for lifetimes with Gummi Bears and Cracker Jack prizes until they have nothing left in the breadbox but broken promises and end up begging for food stamps and welfare checks just to stay alive… Movie people lie when they talk in their sleep. Movie people swim around Catalina Island with a knife and a fork, hoping to meet a shark. In Hollywood, people walk up and steal the food right off your plate. Movie people will suck the marrow out of your bones for a penny, then they give you a bad check for the penny. Then they dig up your dead grandmother and sell her for a souvenir… After a while you can't even hear the lies anymore, after a while the lies blend in with the automobile noises."

Hasford managed to take Chandler, eat him up, and shit him out, in a black hearted, white hot burst of cynicism, anger, and hilarity that was too unique, and far too acerbic, to ever catch on with the general public. It tweaks the conventions of the detective novel and acts as a platform for a chip on the author's shoulder combined with a bugfucked narrative and a mordant view of Los Angeles that makes Day Of The Locust look like it was put out by the Chamber Of Commerce. Critically, it was a treated as a gross anomaly to be ignored. The sales were dismal. Its been out of print for more than a decade. Used, you can get it for around ten bucks online. I got my copy, a trade paperback with an ugly cover with cheap newsprint that has turned the color of rotten teeth, in 1995 at the bookstore in the shopping mall. It took me fifteen years and three moves to get around to reading it. Never read anything like it. Here's a final quote before my final suggestion that you pony up ten dollars to the noble cause of rescuing a dead man's book from the dusty shelves of obscurity, this little slice of poetry during the climax of the book, as the hero drives off towards his destiny and makes an observation along the way…

"We are locked into a river of Detroit iron flowing down the freeway, a rolling river of rubber, painted metal, and glass, automotive madness, a river of rubies glowing into the black night, flowing in tandem with a river of diamonds. The average American would drive his car into the bathroom if the door were wide enough."

The italics are mine, but you get the picture.