Taut, Macabre Poetry
I never met Gus Hasford. It feels strange to say that at the head of a tribute like this one. Especially knowing that my piece will appear on a page alongside remembrances by family, friends, and colleagues. That I only knew Gus Hasford as a reader and a fan, through his words on a printed page, makes me feel a little like Ė to put it in Hasford-speak Ė a poge. Most definitely in the rear with the gear. I first came across the name Gustav Hasford on the advance posters for Stanley Kubrickís film Full Metal Jacket. It was 1987. I was fourteen years old, thoroughly movie-and book-mad. Kubrickís name alone made it a must-see. But the fact that it wasa Vietnam movie added an entire extra level of interest. My father, a Vietnam veteran, had taken me to see Oliver Stoneís Platoon and had guided me through viewings of Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter. To me, Vietnam was part cloudy history (due to my birth in 1972) and part fresh topic (thanks to my father as well as the already crowded Vietnam film genre). I was bright enough not to have bought into Rambo-inspired flag-waving bullshit; thankfully, my father also kept me from buying into the image of Vietnam-Vet-as-Maniac (to this day, the most odious cliché I can imagine). Which brings me back to Full Metal Jacket and Gus Hasford. I saw the filmand loved it. It was tight, lean, funny and profound, and a work of genius that I mistakenly attributed solely to Kubrick, at least until I found a battered paperback copy of The Short-Timers in the stacks of a dusty used bookstore. Took it home and read it in one sitting. The experience of that first reading was so profound that I wonít even try to put it into words. The closest I can come is to quote Michael Herr, co-author of the script for Full Metal Jacket, when he wrote of The Short-Timers that ďIt was a masterpiece that absolutely anybody could pick up and read in a couple of hours and never forget.Ē Understatement of the century, if you ask me. There are images from that book that are burned into my brain forever, even though they never made it to the movie screen. Things like: ďA flight of B-52 bombers circles Khe Sanh, sprinkling eggs of black iron. Each egg weighs two thousand pounds. Each egg knocks a hole into the cold earth, punches a crater into the constricting web of slit trenches that forty thousand determined little men have dug to within a hundred yards of our wire.Ē Or: ďMy bullet passes through his eye socket, punches through fluid-filled sinus cavities, through membranes, nerves, arteries, muscle tissue, through the tiny blood vessels that feed three pounds of gray butter-soft high protein meat where brain cells arranged like jewels in a clock hold every thought and memory and dream of one adult male Homo sapiens.Ē The taut, macabre poetry of Gus Hasfordís writing impressed me even in high school, at a time when my tastes were governed by the likes of Stephen King and Robert Ludlum. I was dazzled, excited, horrified, and inspired in a way I hadnít ever been before. Maybe especially inspired, because at fifteen I was already nurturing my own aspirations to be a writer. I must have reread The Short-Timers a dozen times. Then, a couple of years later, came its sequel, The Phantom Blooper. To this day, I count myself lucky that I saw it on the on the shelf of a Waldenbooks store when it first came out in 1989; I consider myself even more fortunate that I had the $17.95 + tax to buy a copy. A copy which still sits on my shelf in pristine condition, despite multiple re-readings and even a couple of nervous loaning-outs to fellow Hasford fans who hadnít even been aware of the novelís existence. The Phantom Blooper touched me on an even deeper level than The Short-Timers. If the first novel had shown savagery, then its sequel deconstructed that savagery and even offered a peculiar sort of redemption for its characters and, by extension, the reader, all in that precise, one-of-a-kind Gus Hasford prose. Thoroughly dazzled by the double threat of The Short-Timers and The Phantom Blooper, I was ready for more from Gustav Hasford. I did a little research on him Ė read about the library book thefts, of course (more on that later). Found some article or other that talked about various projects he had cooking: a Civil War novel, a biography of Ambrose Bierce (a more perfect pairing of subject and biographer, I truly cannot imagine), even a detective novel. I waited for more from Gus Hasford. It was a long wait. The next thing I heard about Gustav Hasford was that he had died. By now Iíve forgotten the chronology of events in my own life Ė I must have been in college when it came to my attention. In those days, things like that took time to trickle down the grapevine (And still do, I guess, even in this electronic age: Just a few months ago I saw a posting in the alt.movies.kubrick newsgroup from someone who had only just found out about Gus Hasfordís death). I think I maybe read about his death a year or so after it happened. Hell, I hadnít even known heíd published another book, the flawed but fascinating thriller-cum- Hollywood satire A Gypsy Good Time. The whole thing was depressing and dissonant, mostly because it was old news to everybody who cared but me. But that wasnít quite the end of my Gustav Hasford journey. I still had to track down a copy of A Gypsy Good Time, which I became obsessed with reading. I only managed to snag my quarry a year or so ago, just after moving to Los Angeles. Found it in the Los Angeles public library -- a battered library binding (you know what Iím talking about -- that odd mutation where a paperback is turned into a faux-hardcover) that I duly checked out, read, and promptly reported lost. I paid the $30 fine, and the book now sits on my shelf alongside The Short-Timers and The Phantom Blooper. Safe and well loved. And even if I didnít exactly steal it from the library, I still canít help but think that Gus Hasford would have approved. Having actually stolen a few library books myself, as well as liberating the occasional paperback from the occasional Waldenbooks (all in my misspent youth, I assure you), I inwardly cheer every time I think about the mother lode of books that sent Gus Hasford briefly to jail. And, having had handcuffs on my own wrists after being caught trying to shoplift a book (long story Ė buy me a couple of drinks sometime and Iíll tell you all about it), am I deluding myself in thinking I have a connection with Gus Hasford? We were both arrested for our love of literature. It ainít serving together in Vietnam, but itís something.
Written by Scott Bradley
Scott Bradley is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles, California.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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