Saturday, January 14, 2017

Review: MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors

MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors by Richard Hooker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Throughout reading this, I found myself thinking of William Steig’s Shrek. If you haven’t read that, you can knock it out in about 10 minutes, reading slowly. The first time I came to it, I’d already seen the first movie, and I couldn’t believe how such a film could grow out of something so small. As I reflected on it, though, I came to admire that little book for inspiring others to such flights of creativity. I couldn’t have read Shrek as creatively as the filmmakers did, but I enjoyed the experiencing of looking back and seeing all I couldn’t see on my own.

I come to MASH the book after the film and after what, for many years, I regarded as the finest television series ever developed. (I confess it felt a bit dated the last time I saw it – still brilliant but somehow tamer than I remembered.) As such, I see things in it I know I’d have missed if I read the book first.

For starters, the first character we meet is Radar O’Reilly. I know the way Gary Burghoff subtly developed that character. I think still of the powerful innocence of his having his teddy bear with him in Korea, of his perpetual competence with the work and his perpetual uncertainty about the larger questions swirling around him. Here, he’s just a curiosity, a somewhat slow young man with a gift of near telepathy that makes him the best communications officer around. Without knowing what he became, I wouldn’t have reflected on him as much as I did. I see the shell that Burghoff and others filled in, and that makes me like this more than I would have.

There are other intriguing moments, too. Hawkeye remains at the center of everything, and you can see how Donald Sutherland and then, even more brilliantly, Alan Alda filled him out. But he is less central than the show eventually made him. Here, it’s Trapper John who is clearly the best surgeon, and there’s another sidekick named Duke who’s a Southern version of Hawkeye.

And you can see as well some of the weakest elements of the show. Frank Burns is a pure weasel from the start, and his two-dimensionality is softened only by his sudden dismissal by the better surgeons. Hot Lips Hoolihan never gets to develop into the dedicated professional that Loretta Swit made her into. Instead she remains an easy target throughout.

It’s easy to see where the novel comes from: Hooker must surely have read Catch-22 and then decided he had doctor war stories that would fit a similar, picaresque-in-one-setting formula. And there is a powerful original note here: the idea that doctors, pledged to save lives, have a ‘catch-22’ of their own in having to be part of the effort to take them from the enemy.

Much of this is dated, from references to 1940s sports heroes to the comfortable use of “Spearchucker” as a nickname for a minor African-American character. And, courtesy of the film and movie, the book’s central insight is both more familiar and better done.

Still, this one has some virtues of its own, as it explores a sardonic take on the question of how to stay sane in a fundamentally insane situation. Cross its basic competence with its historical insight, and this is one worth checking out if you remember MASH in any of its other forms.

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