There must be a way to write a good novel about Americans in the Vietnam war, but the authors of the three or four I have read have not found it. The sad fact about Gustav Hasford’s The Short-Timers is that its way of failing isn’t very interesting. If any one person’s experience of the war ranged from the shapeless to the chaotic, to write a shapeless and chaotic novel just won’t work. The Short-Timers has a central figure, and we see only what he can see, but neither he nor Hasford has a point of view. Everything just happens. Joker goes to Parris Island, writes for Leatherneck, goes to Da Nang, he and Rafter Man go to Hue right after the Tet Offensive. Joker then goes to Khe Sanh, and later goes on patrol with his pals Cowboy and Alice and New Guy and some others. Most of them get killed.
As the names suggest, Hasford has apparently read Catch-22, but he has none of Heller’s shaping genius, so the writing is very literary, but to little point. Joker says, “Well, Rafter, now you’ve heard a shot fired in anger,” and Cowboy says, “This is just a John Wayne movie. Joker can be Paul New-man. I’ll be a horse.” There is a General named Motors and a Captain named January, and Chili Vendor and Daytona Dave are good buddies. As a result the conversations sound brittle. But then the elaborate writing comes, and it is even worse:
The snipers zero in on us. Each shot becomes a word spoken by death. Death is talking to us. Death wants to tell us a funny secret. We may not like death but death likes us. Victor Charlie is hard but he never lies. Guns tell the truth. Guns never say, “I’m only kidding.” War is ugly because the truth can be ugly and war is very sincere.
Humping in the rain forest is like climbing a stairway of shit in an enormous green room constructed by ogres for the confinement of monster plants. Birth and death are endless processes here, with new life feeding on the decaying remains of the old.
It is as though Hasford and his buddies during the war relied so much on the protection of arch jokes that he had only Creative Writing 201 prose to offer when this protection was removed.
I would agree that for moral or political reasons we all should try to read every book on Vietnam whose author was actually there. But the experience has so far yielded little in the way of fiction, so far as I have read. One virtue of The Short-Timers is that it can be read in a couple of hours.
A. Alvarez’s Hunt bears the same kind of eerie connection to Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock that The Short-Timers does to Catch-22. It is not an imitation in the usual sense yet never seems able to …