Gustav Hasford: crime novelist, war chronicler and book thief
I have a weakness for writers who, having overcome odds of one kind or another, produce something worthwhile, even if just a single novel. The end result might even be flawed, but, then, these days I’ve become increasingly less interested in perfection, while, on the other hand, having developed a wild-eyed aversion to anyone touted as the latest “great writer.” I’ve got a particular fondness for writers who can’t help but bite the hand that feeds them, or who impulsively criticise the spectacle of everyday life. It hardly matters how effective they are, so long as they go at it with a certain flair. The infamous Gustav Hasford fits this bill perfectly. Not only did he take on, and get the better of, one of the great megalomaniac directors in modern cinema history, but he even managed to write two excellent novels, at least one of which was a crime novel, and the other a Vietnam War novel.
Hasford is, of course, best known for the latter book, entitled The Short-Timers, which Stanley Kubrick would turn into the film Full Metal Jacket. When it was published in 1979, Newsweek called the novel "The best work of fiction about the Vietnam War." Though Hasford, Kubrick and fellow-Vietnam war writer Michael Herr would share screenwriting credits, it was basically Hasford’s script. As well as The Short-Timers, Hasford also wrote A Gypsy Good Time (1992), a Southern California crime novel which is thankfully a far cry from Raymond Chandler. The product of a disturbed but engaging intelligence, it remains, for me, an unforgettable book, which, despite its flaws, I instantly took to. In fact, it was that book, which I read some ten to twelve years ago, that prompted me to look into Hasford’s life. What I found was not only a writer of considerable talent- and a crime writer at that (even Short-Timers, since it’s about one of the great state crimes of the twentieth century, qualifies, as far as I’m concerned, as a crime novel)- but a harmless, small-time criminal persecuted far beyond the call of duty.
A Gypsy Good Time centres on Dowdy Lewis, a man who deals in rare books, consumes large amounts of alcohol and is haunted by memories of a war which, for some ten years, divided America. Books, alcohol, Vietnam: these are subjects that obsessed Hasford, a man who could not help but wear his heart on his sleeve. Have a look at the following quotes with their world-weary romantic dissection of the modern condition:
“In California people toss the word love around like a frissbee. You lose your faith in love, I guess. You meet somebody, you think- she’s so nice. But you’ve been there before. You know that in the end she’ll turn out to be just another neurotic man hater, gold digger, or emotional black hole. Loving somebody who can’t love you back is like pouring yourself into a hole. So after a while, you figure, why get your hopes up? Why not cut yourself some slack? You owe it to yourself. Why not save yourself the wear and tear?”
“All of the regulars are in the bar tonight, the walking wounded, moaners, bleeders, and nonstop talkers, the consumptives, syphilitics, and nickel-and-dime underworld slime, the drifters and weepers and hawker of church-bell scrapings and pieces of the one true cross (imported from Taiwan), the chain smokers and chronic masturbators, the tweakers, the bikers, the loan sharks and costumed extras from The Night of the Living Dead, the hookers and the hitters, the hungry, the hurting, the dying and the lying and the dry-eyed crying. Half of these people look like they just came back from the moon, and all of them are sworn witnesses for the prosecution on the charge that Earth serves as Hell for some other planet.”
Has anyone, save Nathaniel West or Myron Brinig (Flicker of an Eyelid), penned a more venomous analysis of Hollywood
“Hollywood is still the cannibal’s kiss. Hollywood is the town where your chips get cashed, and your parking stub is validated for every single day remaining in your life, or your exit visa gets stamped real hard and in black....In Hollywood, life is hard, then it turns into television and you die for thirteen weeks. My father used to deal with these movie people. 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.”
But The Short-Timers is the book for which Hasford will be best remembered. As far as I’m concerned, it ranks up there with Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage and Ambrose Bierce’s Civil War stories when it comes to portraying the horrors and insanity of war. It was also, as I think I said in my book Neon Noir, the short of book that would influence crime fiction during the 1980s, and writers such as James Crumley, Kent Anderson, and George Pelecanos. For The Short-Timers is, with the possible exception of Dog Soldiers and Cutter’s Way, the darkest Vietnam tale of them all. It begins in 1968:
“Sooner or later the squad will surrender to the black design of the jungle. We live by the law of the jungle, which is that more Marines go in than come out. There it is. Nobody asks why we’re smiling because nobody wants to know. The ugly that civilians choose to see in war focuses on spilled guts. To see human beings clearly, that is ugly. To carry death in your smile, that is ugly. War is ugly because the truth can be ugly and war is very sincere. Ugly is the face of Victor Charlie, the shapeless black face of death touching each of your brothers with the clean stroke of justice.”
After Full Metal Jacket’s release in 1987, Hasford, Kubrick and Herr were, not surprisingly, nominated for the best screenplay adaptation of 1987 by the Writers Guild of America and a week later they were nominated for the Academy. Despite the film’s notoriety, and the director’s reputation, it would be Full Metal Jacket’s only Academy Award nomination. Though Hasford suddenly became a celebrity, he would within a matter of months be arrested and sent to prison for harbouring anything from 800 to ten thousand library books in a rental locker in San Luis Obispo, California.
Hasford had never hid the fact that he had over 10,000 volumes in the rental locker. He called it his “research library.” For this was a man who not only loved books, but had various projects in mind, including a biography of Ambrose Bierce. He loved Bierce, particularly his story “Chickamauga.” He also planned a mutli-volumed saga on the Civil War, and books on Twain, Van Gogh, Lincoln, and the Alamo. He was also planning a sequel to his novel The Phantom Blooper, a series of crime novels, and a novel about an American woman president, and which, when it appeared, really did live up to its name, blooping in the hands of any reader unfortunate enough to read it.
Hasford had grown up in the South where he began writing at an early age. While still a high-school student in backwoods Alabama, he published a nationally distributed magazine for writers called Freelance. At 18, to escape the South and his mother, who, even at his funeral, maintained that she had never really understood her son, he joined the Marines where he gained the experience that would go into “Shorty”, as he called his Vietnam novel. As anyone who has read the book knows, Hasford manages to convey in that book a burning antipathy for the military hierarchy and power as such. When he finally returned from Vietnam, he moved up and down the West Coast taking one dead-end job after another, all the while writing and rewriting the book that would change his life. With his anarchist leanings, Gustav felt out of place in America, claiming to like only its used book stores and Sizzlers, a chain of formica infested coffee shops. His long term plan was to move permanently to Australia.
Hasford had already written a film script for The Short-Timers when Kubrick decided to buy into the project. But it wasn’t Kubrick who would approach the writer. Hasford was living in his car when a businessman from Munich appeared out of nowhere, and with seemingly no connection to the movie world, optioned the screen rights to the book. Of course, the businessman was secretly working for Kubrick. Realising he stood to make a substantial amount of money on the royalties to world-wide literary rights alone, not to mention the prestige from being involved with Kubrick, Hasford signed on. He celebrated the occasion by buying a one-way ticket to Australia.
Hasford eventually met Kubrick in London, and, having done so, returned to California in May, 1983, moving into a run down motel in San Louis Obispo so he could be near his books. It was at this time that Hasford fell in love. Like every other venture in his life, it would prove to be a messy experience. For the woman in question did not quite share Hasford’s feelings. This did not stop him from writing long letters to her and showering her with gifts. Around this time he befriended Sam, a small-time con-man who was so enamoured with Hasford’s prowess as a writer that he offered to go to England to sort out a recalcitrant Kubrick once and for all. Hasford and Sam traded books and, as it would turn out, competed for the same woman. In the meantime, fame had hit Hasford with a vengeance; he now had to decide whether he should purchase a Rolls Royce or go on welfare. He sensed that fame might ruin him as a writer.
Hasford’s relationship with Kubrick turning prickly. At first, Hasford was over awed by the director, and taken in by his notoriety. He compared Kubrick to Moses and spoke of himself as the burning bush. As for Kubrick, he was already renown for the cavalier manner in which he treated writers, whether Jim Thompson, Calder Willingham or Terry Southern. He would court them, dangle substantial amounts of money before them, squeeze them for what he could get, before throwing them away. If the writer was lucky, they received an “additional dialogue” credit, but, more often than not, they failed to get any credit at all. This is no doubt how he envisioned treating Hasford, who, as no one’s idiot, quickly realised what was happening. Fortunately, Hasford was obsessive enough to fight Kubrick every inch of the way. This dynamic first surfaced when Hasford saw that Kubrick had a different conception of the book’s narrative. While the director wanted a satisfactory ending, i.e., something that wouldn’t be too upsetting for audiences, Hasford was forced to point out that the war did not end all that satisfactorily, so anything else would be a lie. While Kubrick threatened to abandon the project, Hasford countered by refusing to sign his contract. He was adamant that, if this was his screenplay, he was going to receive credit for it. And, as long as he was on the project, the film would have to remain faithful to his book.