This Wasn't the World He Was Meant To Be In
I first met Gus in 1974,
not long after moving to LA, through mutual friends such as David Wise
and Art Cover. After exchanging a few insults and what we fancied
at the time were witticisms, Gus pronounced me acceptable and told me I
could fuck his sister anytime. I declined, but thought it a generous
Gus was working on The Short-Timers then, which he referred to as his "werewolf book". Later on, after he moved to Venice, I would visit him occasionally at his apartment there, in the building we referred to as "Junkie Central". It was a colorful spot, with torpid addicts literally sprawled in the stairwell; one had to step over them to get to Gus' place.
Gus would usually be up on the roof, working on his tan; during the summer he would lie up there for hours, roasting himself dark enough to make George Hamilton look like a newborn vampire. If he hadn't died of diabetes, I'm sure skin cancer would have carried him off in a few more years. He looked pretty healthy in those days, actually, despite his diet of moon pies and twinkies, because he had no car and so usually walked everywhere. He never got really thin, but there were times when the word "svelte" might have applied.
He was on a military dole of some sort, and just about every month he would have to hock his typewriter for a week or so in order to pay the rent, then redeem it when the check arrived. Despite all this, he was usually pretty cheerful, and I enjoyed hanging out with him.
Somewhere around here I have a copy of the hardback edition of The Short-Timers, autographed by Gus, along with the inscription "To Michael, who saved the ending with an astute observation". It's a nice compliment, but the ending really didn't require a lot of saving; as I recall, I suggested he rearrange and reposition several blocks of text in the penultimate scene where Joker shoots Cowboy, for maximum impact. For my money it's the most memorable part of the book, and I'm glad he took my advice on it.
(I really don't like Full Metal Jacket, by the way, mostly because I thought that having Cowboy shot by the sniper instead of Joker was a terrible choice. The whole point of the book is that Joker, the guy who never wanted to be in charge or to be responsible, has to shoulder the burden of killing his best friend and leading the men. It's a simple, linear narrative that relentlessly builds up to that moment, and cutting it cut the story off at the knees. A disasterous decision on Kubrick's part, in my opinion.)
Gus and I lost touch over the years, largely because I found his mass theft of the library books reprehensible. For a time he lived next door to me in an apartment building in Silverlake. I remember the bedroom of his place being stacked, floor to ceiling, with books. And they were only a fraction of what he'd stolen. He honestly could not understand what the fuss was about; Gus could be pretty amoral, if not downright sociopathic, at times. He really did think of himself as an outlaw. I think I can say with fair confidence that he's the only person -- the only one I've ever heard of, anyway -- to have been nominated for an Academy Award while being wanted by the police.
When I heard he'd died alone in Greece, I was sad, and a little bit angry that he'd left behind only three books and a handful of short stories. But I wasn't surprised. Despite his tough-guy posturing, at his core Gus was a romantic. In another time and place, I don't doubt he'd have checked out in an Oriental opium den or drunk on absinthe in Paris or something similar. He was a hardline Miniver Cheevy, and I think he knew this wasn't the world he was meant to be in.
I've certainly never known anyone like him, before or since.
Written by Michael Reaves
Michael Reaves is an Emmy winning television writer, screenwriter and novelist. His TV work includes the cartoons Batman: The Animated Series, Dungeons & Dragons, The Mighty Orbots, and Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends, as well as Star Trek: The Next Generation.
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