The Black Crab
Like all great novels, there is no shortage of eminently quotable material in Gustav Hasfordís The Short-Timers. I first read it in 1979, when I was eighteen. Even then I knew the book was an amazing feat. At that age, I was still a long way from being the semi-skilled reader I am today, but great books Ė books that are destined to endure and prevail, letís say Ė have a way of becoming part of our lives whether we like it or not.
The Short-Timers is a horrifying meditation on the Vietnam War and human nature. It is also brilliantly written and very funny. You can trust me on this. If you havenít read it, you should, because itís ďthe best work of fiction about the Vietnam War,Ē according to Newsweek. Thatís one of the blurbs on the cover of the paperback edition I have here by my side, and I wholeheartedly agree with Mr. or Ms. Newsweek on this matter.
When the novel was published by Harper & Row in January of 1979, I was a restless high school senior in a small suburban town near Jackson, Mississippi. National Lampoon magazine, Saturday Night Live and Joseph Hellerís Catch-22 had primed me for the razor-edged humor of The Short-Timers.
I understood the jokes right away. Comprehending the unpleasant truth behind the jokes took me a few more years, but I was hooked. This is what great books do. They hook us.
Iíll always laugh at certain passages in The Short-Timers: The freshly-bayoneted Sergeant Gerheim, heaping praise on the recruit who just attacked him, or Rafter Man, earning his nickname. There are many moments in the book like this for me, but when I read The Short-Timers again a few days ago (I donít know how many times Iíve read it now Ė Six? Eight? Ten?) the paragraph that jumped out and punched me in the chest was not funny at all:
Those of us who survive to be short-timers will fly the Freedom Bird back to hometown America. But home wonít be there anymore and we wonít be there either. Upon each of our brains the war has lodged itself, a black crab feeding.
Gus Hasford was a distant cousin of mine. He was from the limestone hills of northwest Alabama, the same poor, rural corner of the state where my parents grew up. I spent long summer vacations there when I was a kid, and I still visit the area several times a year to see my family and relatives. Itís a harsh and beautiful place.
Due to the difference in their ages, Gus called my dad ďUncle Billy Ray.Ē Technically, they were first cousins. My dad remembers passing along dog-eared Mickey Spillane paperbacks to his younger cousin. Perhaps the genesis of Gusí hard-boiled prose can be traced back to Spillaneís pulp fiction, to those dog-eared paperbacks. Iíd like to think so, anyway.
I never met Gus, but he did send me two letters while he was incarcerated for stealing library books. As far as I know, he is the only American author to ever spend time in jail for such a trivial offense. The letters were, like The Short-Timers, darkly funny and heartbreaking. I almost expected them to be signed by Cpl. Joker, USMC, the novelís unforgettable narrator.
A black crab feeding. I think about my phantom cousin all the time. Any mention of Vietnam or the Marine Corps, any discussion about writing, talent, or courage, is enough to bring Gus fully into the present for me. He fought the black crab and won. Undeniable proof of this can be found in The Short-Timers, as well as in the other two novels he published during his tragically short life, The Phantom Blooper and A Gypsy Good Time.
A black crab feeding. You cannot enter the world of The Short-Timers without coming to know the horror of the black crab, its brutality, its hunger. The novel is a descent into darkness, a sheer dive into hell, punctuated with only the grimmest laughter. It is a world that, hopefully, most of us will never have to face first-hand. The price Gus paid to tell us about the black crab was high, terribly high. During his lifetime, he never received the full measure of praise and respect he deserved. It wasnít fair, but I doubt he worried about it much. He was too busy following his instincts, getting it down right. This is what great writers do.
ďThe acclaimed novel upon which the movie Full Metal Jacket is based.Ē This is also on the cover of my dog-eared paperback edition. But if you think seeing Kubrickís film is a worthy substitute for reading The Short-Timers, you are sorely mistaken, friend. Go to the source. There it is.
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