Gus Hasford: The Life and Death of a Short-Timer
by Marc Leepson
THE BALTIMORE SUN, March 28, 1993




    Private Joker, the grimly iconoclastic Marine who wisecracks his way through boot camp andVietnam in the memorable Stanley Kubrick film Full Metal Jacket, is based on a real person: his creator Gustav Hasford, the Alabama-born novelist who died Jan. 29 on an island off the coast of Greece.
    Gus Hasford's death at age 45 came as no surprise to those who knew him well.  Mr. Hasford, long an emotionally troubled man, began suffering from diabetes two years ago.  The official cause of his death was heart failure.  But Mr. Hasford's friends believe he died because he chose not to treat his diabetic condition and because he disregarded warnings not to drink alcohol.
    Although I never met him, I've kept a critical eye on Mr. Hasford's sometimes brilliant and often eccentric career since 1978, when his first novel, the autobiographical The Short-Timers, came out.  That hard-edged story focuses on Mr. Hasford's literary alter ego, Private Joker.
    The book -- which critic Philip Beidler called a work of "indisputable genius'' -- is now studied in university Vietnam literature classes along with the war's other literary classics such as Robert Stone's Dog Soldiers, Tim O'Brien's Going After Cacciato and The Things We Carried, Larry Heinemann's Close Quarters and Paco's Story, and John Del Vecchio's The 13th Valley.
    Stanley Kubrick, the celebrated film maker, read The Short-Timers in 1982, immediately reread the book, and then decided to turn it into a movie.  "It's a very short, very beautifully andeconomically written book,'' Mr. Kubrick told an interviewer.  Mr. Kubrick's film, five years in the making, came out in the summer of 1987.  The critics and the public loved it.  Vincent Canby of the New York Times, in a not untypical review, called Full Metal Jacket "harrowing, beautiful and characteristically eccentric.''
    Mr. Kubrick and company let on that Mr. Hasford helped write the screenplay, along with Michael Herr (who wrote Dispatches, the extraordinary book of Vietnam war reporting).  But an inside source says that while Mr. Hasford had some initial input, the final script was nearly all Mr.Kubrick's work.  Mr. Hasford fought for and won screen credit as co-scriptwriter with Mr. Herr and Mr. Kubrick.  The trio received an Academy Award nomination but didn't win the Oscar.  Mr. Hasford skipped the ceremonies, telling a reporter:  "I didn't ask anybody to nominate me for an Oscar.''
    Gus Hasford's troubles began in earnest in 1988.  They had to do with books, specifically library books, and his propensity to borrow and not return them.  Mr. Hasford, whose mother was alibrarian, had settled in southern California after he returned from Vietnam and for a time lived with a college librarian.  He was arrested in 1988 in San Luis Obispo.  The charge: stealing nearly 10,000 books from dozens of libraries in this country and in England.
    Mr. Hasford admitted that he took the books. He said he needed them to research The Undefeated, a Civil War novel that would be a southern version of The Red Badge of Courage.  At his trial, Mr. Hasford pleaded no contest to stolen possession charges.  He paid a fine and shipping charges to return about 750 books.  He also served three months of a six-month sentence after promising to turn over more stolen- book money with the proceeds of his second novel, The Phantom Blooper, which came out in 1990.
    That novel had a strange publishing history.  At publication time, Mr. Hasford distributed a press release he called a "funeral notice."  In it, Mr. Hasford wrote that his editor at Bantam Books "has, in my opinion, gone insane.''  Calling the episode "complex, unprecedented and scandalous,'' Mr. Hasford charged that Bantam refused to send the book to reviewers.  The publisher said review copies were sent out as usual.
    The review copy I received arrived in the mail from a friend of Mr. Hasford's.  The author inscribed the inside cover in blue and red magic marker with these words:  "For my best friend in the whole world.''  Under that was a blank line under which he wrote, "[your name here].''  It was signed, "From Gus, 'The Joker,' San Clemente, Feb. 20, 1990.''
    The book was not widely reviewed, which is unfortunate because Blooper is a terrific Vietnam war novel -- much better, I believe, than The Short-Timers.  As I wrote in The Sun three years ago, The Phantom Blooper is a muscularly, effectively and evocatively written tough-guy story starring Private Joker, the eternally disaffected Marine. In Blooper, Mr. Hasford mixed in blunt story-telling with writing that at times was almost poetic.
    Gus Hasford's last novel, A Gypsy Good Time, a strange private eye story loaded with dark humor and sardonic epigrams, came out last summer as a paperback original.  The criticalestablishment virtually ignored it.  Mr. Hasford used a scattershot, hyped-up prose in the book that was long on male fantasy and short on plot and characterization.  While not as literarily polished as his other work, Gypsy still was worth reading.
    After Mr. Hasford finished the book early in 1991 he moved from San Clemente, Cal., to anondescript motel in El Cajon.  In his eight or so months there, Mr. Hasford spent a good deal oftime communing with his personal collection of some 10,000 books, which he kept in storage lockers.  "He visited his books every day,'' Bob Bayer, a Los Angeles Times editor and close Hasford friend since their Vietnam days, told me.  "He filed and numbered them and gathered them in hundreds of boxes.''
    Mr. Hasford left the books late in 1991 and drove to Tacoma to visit his mother.  Then he got sick, but regained his health after being treated at a VA hospital.  When Mr. Hasford decided to go to Europe, his friends were less than pleased.  "We begged him to stay,'' Mr. Bayer said, "but he was so hardheaded.  Everything had to go Gus's way.''
    Mr. Hasford settled in Greece last May.  He began writing peppy letters to his friends.  But the letters soon slowed to a trickle.  And it was not exactly a shock when the news of his death arrived early in February.
    "I suspect that he did not take care of himself,'' said Steve Berntson, a long-time friend.  "He probably ran out of pills and decided that he could get better by himself.  He wasn't a good patient.  He may have had [a diabetes] attack a week or 10 days before and didn't take the warning signals too seriously.''
    Mr. Hasford's friends and family held a memorial service in Tacoma on Feb. 13 following hiscremation.  "Everybody got up and told a story and drank a toast,'' Mr. Berntson told me.  For amemorial service, Mr. Bayer added, "it was somewhat upbeat. There was a lot of laughing because the Gustav stories are always so wacky.''
    Among the wackiest was an incident that, ironically, took place 25 years to the day before the memorial service, on Feb. 13, 1968.  Mr. Hasford's Vietnam buddy Steve Berntson told thegathering that he was taking a break during the Battle of Hue in a building where Walter Cronkite and other correspondents were grilling a Marine Corps colonel.  Mr. Cronkite asked about rumors of looting by American Marines.  "No, they wouldn't do anything like that,'' the colonel emphatically declared.
    At that moment Gus, the Joker, burst into the room.  "He had a big smile on his face,'' Mr. Berntson said, and "shouted, 'Bernie, look what I found!'"  What he found were two black onyxpanther statues, which he cradled in his arms.  "I grabbed Gus and yelled at him to get rid of them,'' Mr. Berntson said.  "He panicked and tossed them in an old refrigerator.''
    Gustav Hasford will be remembered.  He served his country in Vietnam.  He wrote three worthy novels.  And, as Bob Bayer said:  "He got the greatest fine in the written history of library science.''
 

Marc Leepson, book editor for The Veteran magazine, served with the U.S. Army in Vietnam in 1967 and 1968.
 

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