Gustav Hasford waits
until nearly the end of his second Vietnam War novel, The Phantom Blooper,
before he acknowledges what is already painfully obvious:
"Be advised, mercy is not what I do best."
Horror, yes. Beauty, on occasion. The blackest of comedy, frequently. But anyone who has waded that far through Hasford's neck-deep gore and wildly terrifying sense of satire is well aware that this book is not going to offer up anything resembling mercy.
Hasford, who was a combat correspondent with the First Marine Division during the Vietnam War, has created a main character and narrator as unsparing as napalm: Joker, the wisecracking Alabama-bred marine.
Hasford's first novel about Joker and his friends, The Short-Timers, was the basis for the Stanley Kubrick film Full Metal Jacket. The movie earned Hasford an Academy Award nomination for his work on the screenplay.
If you didn't get Hasford's message the first time around, Joker is back to lay it out for you just as simple as Spam:
No one told the boys who went to Vietnam how savage and dehumanizing war could be, so it's time to inform a new generation about it before any of them naively enlist for some future war.
Hasford's latest dose of shock therapy contains abundant scenes of savage irony, among them the night a corrupt Army officer-turned-pimp comes face-to- face with a teenage prostitute called Teen Angel who is bent on revenge.
Joker's adventures in Blooper begin with sickening scenes of battle in the trenches of Khe Sanh as Viet Cong overrun the base. Joker is captured, and then is amazed by breathtakingly beautiful glimpses of the life in the North Vietnamese village where he is sent to labor as a prisoner.
But don't expect to be lulled. In fact, you very likely won't know whether to cry or laugh - or vomit, for that matter - when Joker springs the novel's final surprises: the Army's gift to his North Vietnamese village and Joker's visit to his home town.
Is Joker a psychotic, as military psychologists in the book would have the world believe? No, Hasford argues, he's probably the most honest and moral character in The Phantom Blooper.
A sample of Joker's wisdom: "Pulling a tour of duty in the military service of your country is like being put onto a chain gang for the crime of patriotism, except that on a chain gang you get shot if you run away and in the military you get shot if you stay."
Copyright 1990 PHILADELPHIA NEWSPAPERS INC.