1000 Books In 10 Years; Vol. 21: The Short-Timers, by Gustav Hasford

Gustav Hasford’s The Short-Timers is a brusque, concise narrative with rapid-fire prose that is sharp and biting and deadly accurate. It is perhaps the blue print for gonzo journalism and Hasford based the novel on his own personal experience and has admitted that it is semi-autobiographical. The first person narrator speaks as if he was a third party, even whilst he is in the meat of the narrative, and details everything from his training on Parris Island, to his time with the military news paper Stars and Stripes, and up through his time as a grunt who is forced to take sin and judgement from his fellow soldiers so that they might survive for one more day.

The novel details the extreme mental and psychological strain being a foot man can be, even at basic training where 1/8 soldiers (most notably “Gomer Pyle” made famous by Vincent D’onofrio’s portrayal of the character in Stanley Kubrick’s film version of the novel, Full Metal Jacket) are listed as a ‘Section 8”, and are deemed psychologically unfit for duty. This carries on into the field, where most soldiers border on insanity and complete detachment from emotion. “Joker”, the novel protagonist and narrator, after watching a close friend get split in half by a tank, watches him try to stuff his own intestines back into his stomach, and once his life has final left his body, all the protagonist has to say is “Tanks for the memories”. The accolades he offers another soldier who has been disembowel shares a similar gallows’ humour when he tells the corpse: It takes a lot of guts to do what you did. But this is the line the soldiers have to live on to avoid insanity, as the narrative sees people torture rats, talk to corpses and hold each back from turning their guns on each other.

Gustav Hasford

Hasford also does an excellent job of portraying the duality and hypocrisies man. This is a constant theme running throughout the novel and articulated through the darkly humorous prose, perhaps best articulated when one grunt says that the people they are killing are among the greatest people on the planet and that when they return to America they will miss being around people worth killing. Likewise, when one of Joker’s commanding officers sees Joker’s peace symbol, he asks Joker is he thinks “the United States should allow the Vietnamese to invade Vietnam just because they live here?” and then asks him is he wants peace as if it were a bad thing. When Joker turns the question onto his officer, the response is: “Son, we’ve all got to keep our heads together until this peace craze blows over.” This compartmentalizing is a part of the daily life for everybody in Vietnam (as it is in our daily lives) and is perhaps best articulated when one solider states that if you keep your sanity while everybody else around you has gone crazy, then you have clearly failed to assess the situation properly.

There is also existentialist themes running through the narrative as well. The protagonist slips into second person as effectively as I have ever read it in a novel, and whilst weaving in and out from the journalistic perspective delves into existentialist ponderings, admitting, as most existentialists would, that the lives they were leading and the actions they engaged in during war time erased all that they had done before and came to define them at the moment, but at the same time, he suggests that the sin the commit is so vile that it will forever define them, suggesting a flaw in existentialist ideology, and that the darkest sins we commit will continue to define us even years after our moment of weakness has passed.

The novel, though brief, has depth and insight, which though not entirely original, are still refreshing, and entertaining and tragically honest and brutally insightful.

 

 

If you like this, try:

 

Catch-22, but Joseph Hellar: I’ve already recommended this one, and while it is a very different book from The Short-Timers, it is very similar in spirit.

Up next: Johnny Got His Gun, by Dalton Trumbo

 

 

Words I thought I’d look up:

 

 

There were a few, but I usually highlight the words I mean to look up, and since the copy I have of this novel is a first edition, I feel like I shouldn’t be violated (even though it has been violated slightly by the Harrison Public Library who discarded this book so that I might buy it from a used book vender years later).  So, I wasn’t able to go back and look the words up because I couldn’t find them.  Sorry!

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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