The writing of Larry Curtiss Heinemann (HI-nuh-muhn) is closely identified with the Vietnam War, as his two major works, Close Quarters and Paco’s Story, draw on his combat experience. Born and raised in Chicago, Heinemann, an average student in high school, went on to complete an A.A. degree from a two-year college. Unable to continue college, he was drafted into the Army and sent in 1967 to Vietnam, where he served in the infantry. During his tour he was awarded the Combat Infantryman’s Badge and promoted to sergeant.
Home from the war, he enrolled at Columbia College in Chicago on the G.I. Bill. One of the courses he took was creative writing, in which he started describing what he had undergone in combat. He did well enough as a student that he taught creative writing at Columbia College from 1971 until 1986, the year he published Paco’s Story. After a number of years working on Close Quarters, he completed it in 1977. Close Quarters is the story of Philip Dosier—presumably closely modeled on Heinemann himself—who serves in an armored cavalry unit. The novel is a gritty presentation of what the combat soldier in Vietnam, in an unlucky draw of duty, might encounter. The novel has little about the abstract issues of the war, though there are scenes that show what is happening “back home.”
At the heart of the story is the relationship among men at war, the close and necessary bond formed with those with whom one must trust one’s life. Such is the relationship that Dosier enjoys with Quinn, who teaches him that he must defy the absurdity that the military represents. It is the death of Quinn, killed after Dosier is safely home, that triggers his overwhelming agony and realization of senseless loss. Written as a first-person narrative, Close Quarters has immediacy and authenticity; the reader senses that only one who has “been there” could tell this story.
Heinemann’s second novel, Paco’s Story, won the National Book Award. The narrative covers the adventures of a veteran, Paco, who returns home carrying hideous scars, in his soul as well as on his body. Searching for a place to stop, rest, and recover, he is to have no relief from the ordeal that began in Vietnam. He gets off the bus at a small city, Boone (no state identified), where an ex-Marine who fought in World War II gives him a job washing dishes. Otherwise he finds himself in an unsympathetic world. Part of his alienation is the result of his own troubled past, his own sins committed in Vietnam. Through a series of flashbacks, the reader learns that Paco participated in more than one atrocity.
In this depiction of Paco, Heinemann raises a compelling issue on the morality of the war. Paco goes to Vietnam as an innocent. In Vietnam, however, there is no leadership, and Paco behaves no better than he must. Under the stress of combat, he participates in the gang-rape of a Viet Cong girl and then stands by as another soldier murders her. In another incident he cold-bloodedly kills the enemy, presumably as an act of war. His deed prompts a question: Does he have to be such a merciless and efficient killer? Unable to come to terms with his actions, he cannot free himself of the stigma. At the end of the novel, Paco is back on the bus, still looking for his place in America.
One of the remarkable features of the novel is the method of narration. The speaker is a combination of several voices, all the men who died in the campaign in which Paco was the lone survivor. It is a tale told by ghosts who mock the efforts of Paco to find his way home.
After finishing Paco’s Story, Heinemann searched for new subject matter, declaring himself tired of writing about Vietnam. One new direction was the group of essays he contributed to Changing Chicago: A Photodocumentary. Another was a comic novel set in Chicago, Cooler by the Lake . It is the story of Max Nutmeg, a social loser who manages to survive remarkably well in Chicago in the 1980’s. Living in a house with his senile...
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