Gus Hasford: The Life and Death of a Short-Timer

March 28, 1993|By MARC LEEPSON

Private Joker, the grimly iconoclastic Marine who wisecracks his way through boot camp and Vietnam 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 and economically 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 a librarian, 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.

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