Reviving Gustav Hasford

You may not remember Gustav Hasford's name but anyone who has seen Stanley Kubrick's film Full Metal Jacket knows him. Not only was the film based on Hasford's Vietnam novel The Short Timers, but Hasford helped write the Academy-Award nominated screenplay. In addition, the main character, the wise-cracking Marine journalist Private Joker, was based on Hasford himself.

Of course, the question of how much of the script Hasford wrote was a bone of contention between the author and Kubrick. As Hasford once said in response to Kubrick’s offer of an "additional dialogue” screenwriting credit, “Those fuckers retyped my novel and tried to put their names on it!"

No, Hasford wasn't an easy man to get along with. Even though Hasford was self educated on an endless number of subjects, he never graduated from high school because he stubbornly refused to take the graduation exams for his diploma. He fought with Kubrick for years over the movie and about receiving credit (with Kubrick once stating, "I can't deal with this man"). In addition, Hasford was arrested in 1988 for stealing hundreds of books from libraries in the United States and around the world. When Hasford finally died in 1993 on a Greek island from diabetes and aegina-related problems, he was nearly broke and living by himself in a run-down hotel.

If Hasford had a focus to his life (aside from his writing), it was his decision to enlist in the Marines during the Vietnam War. As Hasford later wrote, “The South is a big Indian reservation populated by ex-Confederates who are bred like cattle to die in Yankee wars. In Alabama there is no circus to run off to, so we join the Marines.” After working on a stateside military newspaper for a while, Hasford requested a transfer to Vietnam. From these experiences would emerge his most famous novel, The Short Timers.

When Hasford's first novel was published, it received rave reviews but sold only a few thousand copies. The story is told in the same type of short, staccato writing that Hasford wrote for military newspapers while in Vietnam. This style pulls the reader through as if every word and description hinged on adrenaline-fueled rage. As Harlan Ellison wrote about the book, "It is one of the most amazing stretches of writing I've ever encountered."

Unfortunately, Hasford's novel is now out of print and, without the movie version of the book, would probably be forgotten. This is a shame. Philip Beidler, a professor of English at the University of Alabama and recipient of the Eugene Current-Garcia Award for Alabama's Distinguished Scholar, has called the book a work of "indisputable genius.'' Others have ranked the novel along such Vietnam literary classes as Tim O'Brien's Going After Cacciato and The Things We Carried and John Del Vecchio's The 13th Valley.

Anyone interested in Hasford's life and writings should read "Mangling Frail Civilian Sensibilities: The story of Gustav Hasford, literary snuffie" by Jason Aaron. Originally published in Aura, UAB's literary journal, and in The Viet Nam War Generation Journal, this article is a fascinating introduction to this almost forgotten writer. Aaron is Hasford's cousin and reprinted the article on a website he has devoted to Hasford, which is Aaron's attempt to keep alive the literary reputation of this Alabama novelist. The website also features complete online editions of all of Hasford's out-of-print novels, including The Short Timers (and its highly praised sequel, The Phantom Blooper).

As one of the initial reviews of The Short Timers stated, "Read it if you dare."