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THE SEVERAL BATTLES OF GUSTAV HASFORD : A Candid Conversation With the Co -Writer and Fierce, Real-Life Protagonist of 'Full Metal Jacket'

June 28, 1987|GROVER LEWIS | Grover Lewis is the author of "Academy All the Way," a collection of nonfiction articles. He is at work on a novel about Hollywood, "The Code of the West."

"You and me, God--right?"

--Cpl. Joker in Gustav Hasford's "The Short-Timers"

SHORT-TIMERS

GUS HASFORD WAS HOME FROM THE MOVIE WARS, drinking a beer in Santa Monica. The heat had been fierce in the first week in June, but a late afternoon sea breeze had begun to play through the palms outside the windows, and in the distance you could see the hotel with the glass elevator where Lee Marvin threw one of his enemies off the roof in "Point Blank."

In about three weeks, Stanley Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket," the movie version of Hasford's novel "The Short-Timers," was scheduled to open. According to a poster in the lobby of the Wilshire Theater, Hasford shares full screen-writing credit on the film with Kubrick, the director, and Michael Herr, the author of "Dispatches." Nobody aside from friends knew how to reach Hasford just yet--his celebrity was still pending--and that tickled him immensely. He opened another can of Coors.

We were seated at a clean white table. I had in front of me a letter Hasford had written to me on May 20, 1986, from Perth, Australia, where he had repaired after his screen-writing labors and the long conflict over the film's credits. For 18 of the last 24 hours, we had been in constant company, talking most of the time, but I kept giving him sidelong glances, wondering what was different about him. Nothing, I decided--nothing, so far, at all. His beer belly looked well watered. He was still rumpled, still piping full of it, still snapping off bull's-eye invective at his old, familiar targets.

I read aloud from the letter:

"In the cynical world of L.A., where show 'biz' deals are conducted in the back alleys of cocktail parties like self-parodying out-takes from a comedic film noir, you might want to interject this lively note of (transitory) optimism: I won my credit battle with Stanley. I beat Stanley, City Hall, The Powers That Be, and all of the lawyers at Warner Bros., up to and including the Supreme Boss Lawyer. As a little Canuck friend of mine would say: I kicked dey butt ."

"So what was going on?" I asked. "Kubrick and Herr wanted you to settle for an 'additional dialogue' credit?"

"Yeah, but things turned out happily in the end."

"You said you weren't going to, but did you ever hire yourself a movie-business lawyer or an agent?"

"Nah."

THE CAFE CAFARD

I FIRST MET GUS HASFORD in 1981 when a mutual friend brought him to dinner at my place in Santa Monica. I had read his book only a short time before, and he seemed gratified to know that I had a decent opinion of it. In fact, I thought it was the best novel I had read about the Vietnam War--the toughest and purest and most uncompromising.

Hasford had served as a combat correspondent with the 1st Marine Division during the Tet Offensive of 1968. That meant that he had carried a pencil and a notebook and a gun to defend himself and his fellow grunts during battle. "The Short-Timers" was his apocalyptically imagined and stylized depiction of his experience in Vietnam, viewed through the eyes of "Cpl. Joker" as he accompanies the "Lusthog Squad" into the gore and madness of combat.

Hasford is a big fellow, beefy to paunchy, an innately macho man in his code, but not physically intimidating to other men. He has a resonant yet curiously high-pitched voice with a soft trace of Alabama accent. That counted for something between us right away--the fact that we were both sons of the shirtless South.

Once the ice was broken, we quickly discovered that we had common interests in such arcane subjects as "lost" Depression-era novels and the history of the American West. That first evening, Hasford referred to his enormous and somewhat mysterious collection of books (which he keeps in storage), and then chatted freely about his admittedly grandiose literary plans. He said he was going to write several series of books on various topics, in various genres.

My wife, Rae, and I lived in an apartment with a lanai that looked out on downtown Santa Monica, and on his second or third visit, Hasford christened the place. He called it the "Cafe Cafard," using an obscure French word meaning "beyond anomie or dread" that he associates with the defeated warriors of Dien Bien Phu, the granddaddy of all Vietnam defeats back in 1954.

Cafard fits in a peculiar way. We've decorated the walls with an antique neon cerveza sign and a Ralph Steadman litho for old times' sake, and there was the backdrop of white buildings and swimmy palms. All very tropique , very tristesse .

Hasford became a regular at the Cafe Cafard, sometimes bringing a date, sometimes not. His attire ran to grunt T-shirts and torn sneakers. He was humming and cooking, always. He talked about whatever was on his mind. His imprecations against his publishers--their neglect and abuse of him--were comic sermons that ran to heroic lengths.

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