MASH by Richard Hooker

Nostalgic novel and cleverly written comedy-drama.

Title: MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors
Author: Richard Hooker
Publisher: William Morrow; Reprint edition
Publication date: 3/17/2009 (First pub 1968)
Pages: 226
ASIN: B0014H326C
ISBN-13: 978-0688149550
Type: Fiction
Characters: Cpt Benjamin Franklin Pierce (Hawkeye), Cpt Augustus Bedford Forrest (Duke), Cpt John McIntyre (Trapper John), Colonel Henry Braymore Blake, Walter O’Reilly (Radar), Mjr Margaret Houlihan (Hot-Lips), Frank Burns, Ugly John, Oliver Wendell Johns (Spearchucker)

Amazon Rank: #118,946 in Kindle Store
#73 in Historical Japanese Fiction
#241 in Literary Satire Fiction
#484 in Humorous Literary Fiction

Amazon Book Page
GoodReads Book Page

Ray’s rating: 4 stars

MASH, the novel, endures as a classic comedy and military satire. It outshines the 1970 movie and complements the TV series (or vise-versa).

AN ICONIC BABY BOOMER STORY

The premise for MASH should be familiar to Baby Boomers. For younger audiences: MASH is set in South Korea during the Korean War (1950-1953). It follows the efforts of three irreverent, maverick army doctors (note the subtitle) to survive the war with their sanity intact. Those efforts, however, often call their sanity into question by the more militarily rigid types around them.

EXECUTED AS A TRADITIONAL TV SERIES

The novel is structured much like a traditional TV series. It presents a premise (maverick army doctors during the Korean War) with a basic plotline (the doctors trying to stay sane until their discharge). On this premise, a number of short stories (episodes) are told, each over the space of a chapter or two. This storytelling is supported with a cast of memorable characters, many of whom have become fiction icons.

The big theme of MASH seems to be that normally respectable types (like doctors) will act-out in order to cope when put under duress. In Mr. Hooker’s view, such acting out features the frequent use of nicknames, lack of concern for uniforms and military procedure, and the indulgence of various vices (drinking, smoking, brothels, gambling, con schemes, etc). Most of these questionable activities are presented with humor, but there is a low morals slant to it that always marred my liking for the story. Maybe that was Mr. Hooker’s point (he died in 1997), but his three doctors are not just mavericks, they are bad-boys.

I can appreciate flaunting military strictures and being hostile toward cruelty and hypocrisy, but the three doctors carry it too far. They are hostile towards religion to the point of ridicule (in the cases of Major Hobson and Shaking Sammy) or bare tolerance (in the case of Father Mulcahy). You can say this aspect was Mr. Hooker ridiculing religious hypocrisy, but he seems to have no use for religion at all. But would not some people genuinely seek comfort from their religion while in a war zone?

I started the novel with curiosity as to how Mr. Hooker handled the characters I knew from the TV series (I never cared for the movie). I found that most of them are there but not developed. Some, like Frank Burns and Hot-Lips, have only short, secondary roles. Even Radar, though presented engagingly in the novel, is not developed. And Frank Burns is not the foil for Hawkeye that he is in the movie and TV series. He is presented in the novel more like Major Winchester is in the TV series. These character differences were not a problem for me, however, as I don’t think they impacted the novel’s execution.

POETIC REPARTEE

The novel’s dramatic construction is interesting. Maintaining an omnipotent Point-Of-View, the narrative has a cadence about it that is almost poetic. It especially lyrical in the dialogue repartee from Hawkeye and Trapper John. These poetics make the reading compelling where it would otherwise risk falling flat. And so there are nice sections of dialogue like:

“Frank,” Hawkeye said, “you stink. I haven’t decided what to do about you, but sooner or later I’ll come to some sort of decision. Now I suggest that you go to bed and lull yourself to sleep counting your annuities or something, before you precipitate my decision, to the sorrow of us both.”

That’s clever dialogue and nice to read, though it makes Hawkeye sound like more of an a-hole than he claims Frank to be. Still, the characters are sympathetic, even when they misbehave. At times, though, the bad people the three doctors rail against are straw dogs. Like the officer-doctors who abuse children, or the Protestant chaplain who writes families their sons were well when they are bad-off or dead. In such cases, Mr. Hooker is a bit too black-and-white. That aspect often carried over to the TV series.

That lack of nuance is my chief criticism of this novel, but it is mitigated by solid prose and interesting characters. I will concede that Mr. Hooker brings in some character nuance at the end, when even Hawkeye mellows a bit.

CLASSIC MASH BUT NUANCE WOULD HELP

I do like MASH, the novel. Mostly, I like the lyrical nature of much of the prose and dialogue. And I like the screwball situations and allusions (”mermaid traps” and the “epileptic whore”). It is compelling enough to hold my attention even when the action is a long account of a sporting event. But the protagonist doctors as misbehaving, maverick, and technically brilliant, doesn’t ring believable with me. Mostly, I do not like their personalities. Mr. Hooker does makes his point with all this, but I think it is a shallow point. Greater nuance of theme and character would have taken the novel to a higher level. Even so, I can recommend this book as an entertaining, nostalgic read.

Published by Ray Foy

SciFi writer, blogger, book reviewer, author of "Power of the Ancients"

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