Saturday, May 9, 2015

MASH by Richard Hooker


Title: MASH
Author: Richard Hooker
Publisher: Harper Collins
Rating: WORTHY!

Audio Book read excellently by Johnny Heller.

According to wikipedia, Richard Hooker's real name was Richard Hornberger. He died in 1997. I'm not sure why a guy by the last name of Hornberger would change it to Hooker! That's hardly an improvement in my opinion, but I guess it's his choice! It was his experience working in the 8055th M.A.S.H (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital) during the Korean war that gave him the background for the story. Here again is a case where a novel that turned out to be successful was rejected repeatedly by Big Publishing&Trade; despite the runaway success of its spiritual predecessor, which was Joseph Heller's renowned Catch-22 which I reviewed in February 2014. The two novels are very different though.

Hooker worked on this novel for eleven years, we're told and then had a sports writer polish it before William Morrow had the smarts to pick it up and publish it in 1968. It was pretty much immediately turned into a movie starring Donald Sutherland as the main character Benjamin Franklin "Hawkeye" Pierce, which I also review on my blog. It led, two years later, to the long-running TV show. I was never a fan of the TV show. It kinda sucked. The movie, which I enjoyed, is closest to the novel, but it excludes a lot perforce. You have to actually read the novel, which is quite short, to get the full flavor of the joy and humor of this excellent story, or listen to the audio book narrated by Johnny Heller, as I did.

The novel (as does the movie) begins with Duke Forrest and Hawkeye Pierce arriving at unit 4077 (the double natural). They have traveled there by jeep over a long day and have bonded on the journey. Colonel Henry Blake, their CO, puts then on night shift and they billet with Major Jonathan Hobson, a highly religious guy who spends a lot of time praying. In the movie, they conflate this guy with Major Frank Burns, and in the TV show they conflate Burns with Charles Emerson Winchester III.

Life in the camp is a series of days with literally nothing to do, punctuated harshly and violently with endless hours in surgery as soldiers are brought in from the latest offensive or defensive. The hi-jinks and trouble-making naturally occur during the surgical downtimes, but the two new surgeons prove themselves highly competent, and are soon liked by pretty much everyone despite their lax attitude outside of the OR. Friction soon erupts with Hobson, and eventually the other two talk Blake into sending him home. Blake in the novel is nothing like either of the Blakes on the screen.

As their experience of the types of injury grows, Pierce and Forrest decide they're getting too many chest injuries that neither feels very expert at tackling, so they prevail upon Blake to get a "chest cutter" and he shows up in the form of "Trapper" John McIntyre, who is cold and distant to begin with, but eventually warms to his situation and the two men with whom he shares a tent. Their domain is known as the Swamp (after Hooker's own billet in Korea) and the three together are frequently referred to in the narrative as "The Swamp Men".

The chaplain had quite a role in the TV series, but in the movie and the novel he's very much a minor character. Since he's Catholic, Forrest, a protestant, demands a like-minded chaplain, but the one they get is completely clueless and likes to write peppy letters to families about their wounded sons. This idiotic misrepresentation finally goes too far, and the Swamp men threaten to burn him on a cross at one point. This is omitted from both the movie and the TV show. The movie does retain the funeral of Captain Waldowski, the camp dentist, which is never actually a funeral. He is depressed however, so they hold a service and drop him from a helicopter. After he sobers up the next day he's fine.

The Swamp men also take a dislike to Major Frank Burns because he's a jerk whose only real skill seems to be his facility with open heart massage. Both Duke and trapper deck him at one time or another, and Blake is furious. It's at this point that Major Margaret Houlihan, a stickler-for-rule-rules chief nurse shows up. She sides with burns and detests the Swamp men as an unruly, disrespectful rabble. This culminates in a fight which Pierce provokes and Burns falls right into. The fight is witnessed by Blake, who sends Burns home, and bitches out the swamp men for now depriving him of two surgeons.

Another incident missed from the movie is the Ho-Jon affair. The Swamp Men pretty much adopt their Korean houseboy, and when he's drafted into the Korean army, they try to keep him out of it. He comes back to them wounded and after saving his life, decide to sponsor him to attend Pierce's own college. They raise money for this by selling signed photographs of Trapper John dolled up to look like Jesus Christ. People actually buy these and before long they have several thousand dollars and off goes ho-Jon.

In a sequence very similar to that depicted in the movie, Trapper and Hawkeye are tapped to fly to Japan to perform surgery on the son of a US congressman, and they take advantage of this to tighten up their golf technique. They also fix up a child who is being taken care of in the local pediatric hospital-cum-whorehouse.

One of the most amusing sections, for me, was when Blake is ordered to Tokyo and is expected to be gone for several weeks, so a temporary CO is drafted in and although he isn't too bad, the Swamp men want to avoid him. In a sequence reminiscent of the man who saw everything twice form Catch-22, the three of them come up with a plan to convince the temporary CO that Pierce is in need of psychiatric treatment. The three of them get to go for evaluation, talking of mermaids and epileptic whores. The way this is written is hilarious, but it's entirely omitted from the movie, which by-passes this and jumps straight to the football game.

The movie portrays it slightly differently, but in the novel, Radar is calling plays based on his supernatural senses, and with twenty-twenty-twenty-four points on the board, the opposition's sedated (or at least their leading player is), and because Pierce got Blake to bring a in professional football player who is also a surgeon, the 4077th squeaks by with a 28-24 win and makes a mint out of it.

The story winds down a bit flatly, with nothing going on, and the original two, Forrest and Pierce pretending to have battle fatigue and presenting themselves as chaplains, so they have an easy ride and no work to do. I had one major issue throughout this novel which was Hooker's addiction to adding "he said" after very nearly every speech. It became annoying in short order in the audio version; maybe reading it yourself would make it feel less glaring. I don't know. I could have done without that, but on balance I recommend this novel. It's not the classic which Catch-22 is, but it is a decent second-best. It parallels Catch-22 in some regards, but it is its own novel, just as goofy, although rather less crazy. I recommend it for anyone who is interested in war stories with a humorous angle.


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