The old man and the cats…

Literary MASH-up, The Hornberger Novels

(My copy of the 1968 first edition of the novel that started it all)


Many of us of a certain age remember the television show MASH, and even the more raucous, innovative and sometimes infuriating film that inspired the program. Both the film and the series were based on a 1968 novel that is hardly been read by even the most rabid fans of the series.

H. Richard Hornberger was a young doctor who served in a MASH unit, the 8055, during the Korean War.

After he returned stateside, he worked on creating a novel based on his experiences, modeling the character of Hawkeye Pierce on himself. Structurally, the book is a hot mess, sprawling, stochastic, with dome jokes that are still very funny, and others that have aged….poorly. The book is irreverent, occasionally blasphemous, and sometimes pretty coarse. It also conveys the stress and fatigue of the doctors, especially in the chapter describing the ”Deluge,” a nonstop period of wounded being sent to the unit, and the increasingly exhausted medicos struggling to keep up. They make mistakes, nearly fatal mistakes in Hawkeye’s case, and barely get through it. Theres a power to these sections that comes from the lived experience of Dr. Hornberger (who chose the nom de plume ”Richard Hooker” from an Anglican theologian, or from his golf swing.)

But, heres whats interesting: the worst aspect of Robert Altman’s film adaptation, the sexual humiliation of Sally Kellerman’s Margaret O’Houlihan (the ”O” appears only in the film) is nowhere to be found in the book. She’s given the nickname ”Hot Lips” but not because she and Frank Burns have a broadcasted affair (in the book, they kiss at least once, and Col. Blake doubts that much more than that happened).

No, in the novel, Trapper John, newly appointed Chief Surgeon, addresses her as ”Hot Lips” at his party, and it sticks. The film’s ugliest moment, the shower scene in which Houlihan is publicly exposed in the nude to the whole cheering camp does not take place at all. (The late Sally Kellerman’s incandescent rage as she upbraids Blake is spot-on, and her despairing wails of ”My commission!” hurt even when I saw the film, way too young.) So, in that way, the novel is far less cruel than Altman’s film.

On the other hand, the ”Last Supper” scene is brilliant, even elegant, in a way that the rather crass antics of Trapper John selling pictures of himself (for a good cause, sending Ho-Jon the Swamp’s house boy to college in the USA) as Jesus fails to be. The novel does milk one good line from Trapper’s alleged resemblance to Jesus, in that Duke Forrest, on hearing of the notion, murmurs, ”If thats what He looks like, I’m gonna try Buddha.”

Here’s where Altman gets it right

The second book, MASH Goes to Maine (1972), starts off surprisingly well—Hornberger used his own experience in his first years back home, and gives a witty tour through the rivalry of various groups of doctors each trying to create a functional pump-oxygenator “which will take the place of the heart and lungs long enough for the surgeon to do his bit.” (p. 26).
The various groups of doctors, each led by a chief, leads Hawkeye to call them, singly and as a group, the “Cardia Nostra.” The name fits, as each group spies on the others, and tries to hide their own progress. Hawkeye realizes he is not at Trapper’s level of “superintelligence” finishes his training and heads home.

Once Hawkeye is back in Maine, and the book drifts back to bringing the band back together, the narrative loses steam, and becomes a reverse-snobbery series of capers against the suits, by the doctors who in fact are the suits.

The book slowly meanders, and sort of fades out. No doubt in reaction to the perceived ”liberalism” of the series, the politically conservative Hornberger throws around a lot of racial slurs and stereotypes. This gets even worse in 1977’s MASH Mania, which seems determined to prove that Hawkeye is a Bircher without saying so.

I won’t discuss the novels by William E. Butterworth, as they list Richard Hooker as a co-author, but in fact are solely written by Butterworth. Also, they’re fairly dire.

It’s possible that Hornberger felt that Alan Alda’s Hawkeye, more puckish and mercurial than the original, had effectively rewritten Hornberger’s own life, and that he wanted to reassert his own ownership of the character and of its meaning.

Still, the first two novels have value, the original beyond its literary quality and the second for capturing an interesting moment in medical history.

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