Study Guide

Paco's Story

by Larry Heinemann

Paco's Story Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Based in part on Larry Heinemann’s experience in the Vietnam War, Paco’s Story tells a representative tale of the brutality of war and the subsequent problems of a veteran’s adjustment to life in small-town America. Heinemann presents this material through a narrative that focuses on Paco Sullivan’s arrival in, partial adjustment to, and departure from the typical American crossroads town of Boone, a river town in the American Midwest. This strand of the narrative is punctured by scenes of the massacre of Paco’s company at Fire Base Harriet, Paco’s rescue and recovery, and earlier war incidents in which Paco was involved.

The novel, however, begins not with Paco but with a virtuoso introduction by and to the unnamed narrator, whose hip but elegant manner provides much of the novel’s special flavor. The narrator insists that people do not want to hear another war story, and he is rather specific about just what they do not want to hear and why. Still, stories such as Paco’s must be heard, and the narrator, who has cornered a listener whom he addresses as James, must tell it. Readers soon learn that the narrator is the ghost of a soldier who served with Paco in Alpha Company and who lost his life with all the others at Fire Base Harriet.

Paco arrives at the outskirts of Boone by bus, washes up at the Texaco station, and begins a hobbled walk toward town. Befriended by the garage mechanic, he begins a search for work and a place to stay. The townspeople are curious about Paco, and also suspicious. His faraway gaze (he is heavily medicated) and his cane-aided limp make him something of a freak; his presence brings the unpleasantness of the Vietnam War, about which few seem to know anything, into their midst. Most of the townsfolk—those he meets at Rita’s Tender Trap and Hennig’s Barbershop—respond ungenerously to his requests for information about work. Soon, however, Paco meets Ernest Monroe, who gives him the job of dishwasher at the Texas Lunch and helps him find lodging at the nearby Geronimo Hotel (no doubt an ironic allusion to the serviceman’s labeling Vietnam as “Indian Country”).

The early scenes of Paco’s progress in Boone, along with a detailed description of his wounding and rescue at Fire Base Harriet, underscore the various levels at which the war continues to affect Paco. Crippled and pain-riddled, he carries the physical consequences of the war everywhere he goes. He cannot leave it behind, because it has reshaped him. Although he wishes to get on with his life, to move forward, he carries his memories with him as well. Moreover, the war has shaped how he is to be perceived by others.

He remains a freak to most, not only because of his physical appearance but also because such a vision allows others to remove themselves from any...

(The entire section is 1157 words.)

Paco's Story (Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

When Larry Heinemann’s Paco’s Story was chosen over books by such established novelists as Toni Morrison and Philip Roth as the winner of the 1987 National Book Award for fiction, critics disagreed as to whether the book should be considered the finest novel of the Vietnam War or merely a moving work which stops short of greatness because the protagonist is never fully realized. Certainly the details of the day-by-day, night-by-night conflict ring true. As in his first novel, Close Quarters (1977), Heinemann draws upon his own experiences as a combat infantryman in Vietnam in order to bring home the realities of that war to civilians who would rather forget it.

Like an epic, Paco’s Story takes place simultaneously in three worlds: the hell of Vietnam, which Paco Sullivan tries to annihilate with whiskey, Librium, and Valium; the everyday earth, represented by the midwestern town of Boone, as selfish and petty as the Ithaca to which Odysseus returned; and the supernatural world, populated by the spirits of the ninety-two men of Paco’s company who were killed in a firefight of which he was the only survivor.

If Heinemann had spent two hundred pages recounting battlefield experiences in a war which he sees as butchery with no redeeming value, the book would have been so painful as to be unreadable. By alternating episodes in Vietnam with episodes in Boone, he not only makes the horrors of his hell bearable for the reader, but he also underlines the worthlessness of that society which sent men such as Paco Sullivan off to fight for it and then rejected those who returned home.

The third world is made up not of gods, but of ghosts. Some chapters into the book, it becomes clear that the narrators are the spirits of the dead men in Paco’s company. Because they are no longer involved in human affairs, because they have endured the worst, they have the quality of an omniscient author. For the violent anger which Paco might express if he ever let down his guard, they substitute a detached and bitter cynicism.

This collective narrative voice varies in tone from scene to scene and mind to mind. Frequently the narrators mock the reader, whom they jeeringly address as “James.” This is no war novel, they insist, because no one wants to hear about the war, and then they proceed to describe the war in the profane language of the soldiers they were. At other times, they penetrate the minds of the natives of the normal world. No passionate prose is needed to damn them; the tone of the objective narrator, recording their passing thoughts, is sufficient. Thus after the initial war passages in the book, Heinemann’s narrators retreat to this quiet objective narration, following the mental twists and turns of numerous unworthy civilians, for example, the bus driver who dumps Paco at the edge of the interstate with a kind of malicious pleasure, or the women who wonder with a clinical detachment what it would be like to sleep with him, just for kicks. Sometimes the same objectivity of tone is maintained even in the Vietnam sections, enabling the author to move quickly between characters and incidents in order to build a total effect. The changes in tone provide variety for Paco’s Story; the use of the collective consciousness of the dead as the narrator effectively unifies the book. The spirits, however, have a peculiarly Olympian detachment. Although Paco was a member of their company, they clearly do not think of themselves as his guardian angels. Instead, they subject him to whispers, recollections, and dreams, tormenting him in the dark hours of night almost as if they resent the fact that he alone is still alive.

If his dead comrades rejected him, one might expect Paco to be welcomed by the living, by the members...

(The entire section is 1554 words.)

Paco's Story Bibliography (Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Anisfield, Nancy. “After the Apocalypse: Narrative Movement in Larry Heinemann’s Paco’s Story.” In America Rediscovered: Critical Essays on Literature and Film of the Vietnam War, edited by Owen W. Gilman, Jr., and Lorrie Smith. New York: Garland, 1990. Anisfield argues that while the typical war narrative, including that of the returned veteran, depends on a violent, apocalyptic ending, Paco’s Story defies this convention by closing with a largely passive, internal event. The rejection of apocalyptic closure allows thoughtful examination of the war and its consequences.

Bonn, Maria S. “A Different World: The Vietnam Veteran Novel Comes Home.” In Fourteen Landing Zones: Approaches to Vietnam War Literature, edited by Philip K. Jason. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1991. Paco’s Story is the linchpin in Bonn’s analysis of how veterans’ fictions reflect the unusual conditions of return for participants in this unpopular war. Bonn compares Paco’s situation to that of Philip Dossier in Heinemann’s Close Quarters and Chris Starkmann in Philip Caputo’s Indian Country (1987), exploring how these novels treat the limits and terms of reintegration.

Jeffords, Susan. “Tattoos, Scars, Diaries, and Writing Masculinity.” In The Vietnam War and American Culture, edited...

(The entire section is 410 words.)