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(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 connection with America’s involvement in Vietnam. Ernest, an ex-Marine who survived World War II battles at Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima, is a fortuitous, benevolent presence through whose own story Heinemann is able to universalize his concerns with the human capacity to make war and survive it. Paco’s earlier encounter with Mr. Elliot, a mildly crazed refugee from World War I Russia who runs the town’s fix-it shop, also serves to establish a context for approaching the meaning of Paco’s experience in and after Vietnam.

As Paco learns and repeats the harsh routine of his work at the Texas Lunch, it becomes clear that this unfriendly work helps him to hold himself together psychologically. The scalding water and irritating chemicals are nothing to what he has already endured, and the long hours of busing tables, soaking, rinsing, and scrubbing help to keep his memories and behavior under control just as much as the depressant drugs do.

The routine of Paco’s short career at the Texas Lunch is disturbed by two encounters. One night, minutes before closing, a drifter named Jesse comes into the restaurant. Jesse has been on the road a long time, and he tells Paco and...

(The entire section is 1,157 words.)