Friday, October 15, 2010

The Book You Have to Read:
“A Gypsy Good Time,” by Gustav Hasford

(Editor’s note: This is the 106th installment of our ongoing Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Today’s selection comes from Dan Fleming, the writer/co-creator of Warrior Twenty-Seven, an independent comics anthology. His comic work can be viewed here. Fleming also writes the blog My Year in Crime.)

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“I don’t have a cowboy hat. I wear all of my cowboy hats on the inside.”
If you are anything like I used to be, you’ve never even seen a Gustav Hasford novel, let alone read one. He’s long been a mysterious holy grail of used book stores, talked about in revered, hushed tones; a secret author we are sure once existed, but about whom little proof exists other than high-priced used copies on Amazon.

So why have I been so desperate to read him?

I first saw the film Full Metal Jacket (1987) when I was 12 years old, an age that seems to make a particularly strong impression on one’s lifelong loves. Never before had I heard profanity used so poetically. The repartee between soldiers, though peppered with language I would never let my mother witness me using, was believable and magnetic. I needed to talk like that, but without the backdrop of war.

It was the first time I’d ever searched the film credits to find the culprit behind the words, hoping I could someday track him down and beg to be tutored in the mystic arts of the profane.

Gustav Hasford.

Not only was he a badass writer, but he had a badass name. I searched every bookstore I could find, looking for a copy of The Short-Timers, the 1979 novel on which Full Metal Jacket was based, barely able to contain my desire for the printed word. I’m still searching for that 192-page book, by the way, even though the entire text is now available online.

So imagine my pants-wetting surprise, when on a harmless, near-weekly perusal of my favorite used bookstore I happened upon a copy of A Gypsy Good Time, Hasford’s final, 1992 novel. I would have tapped a vein and paid in blood, had the proprietor wanted anything more than $1.75 for that tattered piece of gold.

The back-jacket copy had me salivating:
Dowdy Lewis, Jr., deals in rare books, alcohol, memories of Vietnam and delusions of peace. Now Dowdy is dealing in something else. Call it murder. Call it heroin. Call it love.

Yvonna Lablaine walked into his life with .45 caliber lips and more charm than the law allows, the blackest sheep in a very rich family. The next time Dowdy saw her she was standing at his door, dying.

In between, Dowdy had made love to her in Topanga Canyon, posted bond for her, and had taken on a bar full of low-life drug dealers to find out where she went. Now he’s putting together the pieces behind Yvonna’s death. The picture isn’t pretty: it’s about mobsters, Hollywood moguls, and the price of flesh and blood. Then again, Dowdy Lewis is not a pretty guy. He’s a man with a broken heart, looking for vengeance, who’s about to have A Gypsy Good Time.
For those of you who are not in the know, “a gypsy good time” is a promise of something, only to have it switched out for something else, more than likely something worthless. An apt title. Those of you expecting a pot-boiling noir thriller with twists, turns, double crosses, and intricate plotting might want to avoid this book. Sure, the cover makes it look like any old Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett story on the shelf, but heed this warning: it’s not.
“War kills some of us, but time kills us all.”
Dowdy is not your typical hard-case, Los Angeles private eye. Sure, he’s a military veteran and a former cop, but he never got over being the former and hated being the latter. He wants nothing more now than to buy expensive books off cheap bimbos, and drink his vodka and fortified wine in peace until the death he so narrowly avoided in the jungle finally tracks him down. For a mere 177 pages, we live in this poor guy’s head, dealing with his bloody thoughts, his passive-aggressive depression and “fuck you” attitude. He’s a survivor, and don’t think for a second he’s happy about it. Perhaps he should have laid down in Vietnam and let his name be printed on Maya Lin’s black wall. It couldn’t have been worse than what he deals with in Hollywood. His head is not a happy motion picture. There are no song-and-dance numbers, no happy ending, and there is no place like home.
“The man who lives under a curse is the man who is capable of doing what is necessary.”
This is Hasford’s strength as a writer, this ability to create something you’ve never seen or heard before. A world where a degenerate drunk is not quite the hero, not quite the goat, but nonetheless believable and lovable, much like an alcoholic uncle whose stories both frightened and entranced you as a child. At least until your parents threw him out of the house. No one crafts a sentence or a character like Hasford does. He’s part Chuck Palahniuk, part Chandler, wholly original, yet still hard-boiled.
“I don’t want assurances,” says Sergeant Sunshine. “I want guarantees. I don’t have any pencils with erasers for those who admit their mistakes. My philosophy is live and let live as long as I get my end of the deal in cash. You start to get into my pocket, I see you as trouble. I don’t accept excuses, I don’t accept alibis. I only accept gold and United States currency. I don’t have a good side. I wouldn’t give a blind man the dust off my car. I wouldn’t piss into your chest if your heart was on fire. You short me the price of a stick of gum and you’ll be wearing your balls for earrings.”
And that guy might be one of the nicest characters in this book, not counting Joe Shit the Ragman. Just look at that character’s name! Do you need any other reason to hunt down A Gypsy Good Time?

OK. I’ll try to persuade you hard cases just a little more.

This is the most quotable novel I’ve ever read. The bookmark I used has about 20 page numbers listed on it, each with a line or paragraph that I was dying to repeat in this review. But honestly, you could flip to any random page and find a line or situation you’d memorize just to use on some jackass at your local watering hole. Consider this excerpt:
As Blade gets onto his knees I squirt lighter fluid all over Blade’s face.

Blade cries, rubs his eyes. “Jesus,"” he says. “What are you doing to me?”

I say, “I’m going to set fire to your face.”

Blade says, “Jesus. Jesus Christ. No. Don’t.”

I say, “Want to live?”

Blade says, “Yes. Yes.”

I say, “Wet your pants.”

Blade says, “What?”

I say, “Wet your pants. Piss on yourself. I’ll give you ten seconds. Ten ... nine ... eight ... seven ...”

Blade spends three seconds thinking I’m kidding, three seconds straining his kidneys, and three seconds soiling his diapers.

I let Blade go.
Maybe I should have warned you first, but what would have been the demented fun in that? So go sell some blood, or a valuable old book, put down the hooch, and find yourself a copy of A Gypsy Good Time. For the next few hours, your own miserable life might not seem so bad, certainly less eventful, and perhaps with a happier ending.
“Every so often, the gods stop laughing long enough to do something horrible. There are few facts that are not brutal. The bitter, insufficient truth is that God’s recovered, but fun is dead.”
READ MORE:Reviving Gustav Hasford,” by Jason Sanford (StorySouth).

1 comment:

Todd Mason said...

Frederik Pohl, then on his out the door as sf editor at Bantam Books (where he saw THE FEMALE MAN by Joanna Russ and DHALGREN by Samuel Delany published), made sure that Clarion Writers Workshop guy Hasford's THE SHORT TIMERS found its way into print. Hasford's whole life was roundabout and damn near never-was, it seems.