As I stated a couple of months ago, I went out and bought an e-reader because I was starting to feel more than a bit perturbed by minuscule text sizes in books. A good example of that would be the battered copy of the George R. R. Martin novel A Game Of Thrones that is somewhere around my house. To say that this novel is difficult to read is an understatement. The printed paperback’s text size would give compound eyes a bad case of strain.
Long, long ago, when I was but a boy, I came across a paperback out the front of a store during a supermarket trip. This paperback was in a dump-bin or similar placement, and the dump bin made no secret of the fact that the store was practically giving these books away because it could not get rid of them. Surprisingly, one book I found in this bin was The Short Timers, by Gustav Hasford. I say surprisingly because as the cover proclaims, it is an acclaimed novel, and Stanley Kubrick even based a film on it called Full Metal Jacket.
I am going to be blunt about Full Metal Jacket for a minute. I have said in other places how creative artists should fear their fans and admirers. Stanley Kubrick fans are a classic example of this. Kubrick could have made a film comprised entirely of colonoscopy footage, and his fans would have told the rest of the world how it is an example for the rest of the entire film industry of the collective world to emulate. Whilst Kubrick‘s photography skills are impeccable (especially in this day and age of zoom too close and shake the shit out of your camera as a modus operandi), his storytelling skills leave quite a lot to be desired.
There are two points in particular where Full Metal Jacket and The Short Timers diverge dramatically, and in order to understand my point here, I must go into detail about them. As I have described elsewhere, stories of all sorts, irrespective of the format they are delivered in, follow a certain progression. A protagonist or group thereof is introduced. A goal is assigned to them, and a challenge or barrier complicating the attainment of that goal is put in place. The final third of the story details how the challenge is overcome (or failed) and what this does to the protagonist. Stanley Kubrick seemed to think that the point of Hasford‘s story was how a Marine will shoot dead a teenage girl to gain the approval of his squad-mates. Hasford‘s points come to a small number, but an important one was that America’s prosecution of the Vietnam war had a level of wrong to it that is reflected in American society.
The first key sequence in which Hasford makes this point is when his narrator character, a thinly-veiled proxy for himself that gets nicknamed Joker by the drill sergeant of the first act, attends a recreational exhibition of a film. The film shown to the Marines in this scene, although never named in the text, is plainly The Green Berets, a stinker of a propaganda piece that was co-directed and lead-acted by John Wayne. This film is available on Blu-ray Disc, and let me tell you something. Ed Wood could not have made a funnier film without meaning to. Hasford describes how the Marines watching the film with him whoop, holler, and threaten to urinate all over themselves. Having seen it for myself, I can tell you that if anything, Hasford was understating matters. The Green Berets is, to my mind, liable to produce a similar reaction from Marines serving in Vietnam as I have to anything that comes out of a curebie’s mouth. No matter how well-intentioned the curebie tries to kid me that they were, the words out of their mouth are quite insulting. John Wayne‘s inability to tolerate the fact that not everyone in America might feel the same way about its government as he did really got the better of him in that film. But the point here is that this sequence, which really shows a distinct lack of dedication towards the goals of the American government on the part of the American soldiers, is nowhere to be found in the Kubrick film.
The second difference is basically that the entire last third of Hasford‘s novel is pretty much not in the film. It is not revealing too much to say that this final act ends with Joker’s squad being picked apart by a sniper, and Joker shooting a squadmate dead so as to deprive said sniper of the opportunity to use that squadmate as “bait”.
Oh, and another part of The Short Timers that I believe should have made it into film is the rat race. Picture a small group of soldiers pouring fuel down the hole into a nest of rats, igniting it, and then chasing the flaming rats around the room, beating the little critters to death with a boot. That is the kind of insanity that Hasford excelled at describing.
I will cut to the chase from this point. I am not that big a fan of The Short Timers. The character development is weak, even for the central protagonist. The story does not really seem to go anywhere except to say how said protagonist goes from raw recruit to heartless killer, and the progression from one to the other does not really seem to have a lot of steps in it, either. I think the primary problem is simply that the novel is incredibly short. So much so that it really feels like a slap in the face to see how little of The Short Timers really did end up in Full Metal Jacket. But I am not here to talk about films this time. The real subject of this essay lies in the next paragraph.
The Phantom Blooper is, as the cover states, a novel of Vietnam. But it is more than that. The plot essentially picks up where The Short Timers left off, with Joker having been demoted for reasons that are never elaborated on. The first third of the novel gives a good insight into one of the worst problems that confronted the United States’ armed forces confronted during that war. Specifically, that the Americans were just as prone to start fighting each other, or friendlies, as they were the enemy. But towards the end of this part, Joker finds himself wounded and captured by the local Viet Cong.
This is the point in the story where Gustav Hasford brings out the big guns. Although the stories Hasford tells are compelling ones, it is his gift for the gab, so to speak, that really sets him apart from other authors in this genre. His ability to describe something patently horrible, such as people being set ablaze in battle, and yet make a highly visual reader like myself laugh at his choice of words, is something I admire a great deal.
We also get a much better sense of who Joker is and why he is the way he is. In The Short Timers, the only real descriptions of the characters are very general. There is a reference to how much taller Joker is than an officer who starts berating him towards the end of act two, but it is not until The Phantom Blooper that we read that at six foot three, Joker has a real problem adjusting to life amongst the Viet Cong who have captured him.
I also happen to find that stories in which soldiers are pitted against enemies work best when both sides are humanised. The Phantom Blooper elaborates on the appalling conditions in which the Vietnamese guerrillas live and fight. It also shows Joker experiencing a case of Stockholm Syndrome, to the extent that he is starting to fall in love with one of the captors who have press-ganged him into accompanying a Viet Cong unit on missions. This particular captor, Song, also acts as a bridge between the reader and the other Viet Cong, helping readers to understand the way Joker does that the people he is being held by are just as Human as he is.
Probably the best point in the book comes after Joker is rescued by his fellow Americans, brought to a hospital, and then discharged. Both from the hospital and the Marine Corps. The conduct that the troops who rescue Joker display is, to put it bluntly, fukking terrible. I will not elaborate on it at all except to say that I think it would be very interesting to talk to veterans of other wars, especially World War II, and see what they think of stories concerning how American soldiers have conducted themselves in the Vietnam war and those since.
I think that one thing every veteran can agree on is that when a man comes home after having been basically missing in action for a year, and after two other tours at that, one does not talk shit to him for any reason. When Joker comes to his parents’ home in Alabama and sees how badly the economics are affecting his family, however, the man that his mother has married whilst he was in Vietnam does exactly that. This results in one of the most satisfying instances of a man showing a person who only thinks he is a man who the man really is.
Joker has three living relatives that are mentioned in the novel. One is his grandmother. I was not too clear on whether this grandmother is from his father’s side or his mother’s. It does the story a world of good, however, to see that this grandmother is on Joker’s side, more or less, in the aftermath of the aforementioned confrontation. Joker’s mother is a lot less on the ball, and the less said about the joker that she is married to, the better. Let us just say that I use a similar description of my male parental unit to what I thought of when I read about this clown: the anti-Peck.
Which brings me to the relative that I think drives home the best point of what The Phantom Blooper is really about. See, the family farm that Joker grew up on was in great financial distress when he enlisted. That is why he enlisted in the first place. But when Joker comes home, he finds himself disgusted with the people of the nearby town that he used to call home. When he went to Vietnam for the first time, Joker’s younger sister, whom he mostly refers to as Stringbean, was about eleven years old. At fourteen, she is tall, thin, and boisterous. In her, Hasford creates a great metaphor for what Joker was before his service.
Do I recommend The Short Timers and The Phantom Blooper? In the former case, I have some major reservations. It is worth reading once, but I would not read it again, and as a dissemination about what went wrong in Vietnam, it has a lot of gaps. But in the latter case, with some minor reservations about Joker’s musings about how cities have made us all weak and corrupt (this, in spite of the fact that men like Albert Einstein grew up in the second largest city of Germany), I recommend the novel unreservedly. The Phantom Blooper is one of those stories that makes one really question what the society they are in is about, and why it is being run the way it is being run.
In any case, both books can be obtained relatively easily in text or e-book formats. They have been “out of print” in the physical sense for some time, apparently, so this may well the only way to get one’s hands on a copy now. Although I should know better than to condone obtaining books semi-illegally online, the lack of any other means to get these two and the fact that one is such a great read negates that. I hope this essay proves helpful in determining your next choice of read.