Paco Sullivan is soft-spoken, withdrawn, and polite. He wants peace, but he is unlikely to find it. Though the reader learns that (in war) Paco is capable of violence, the knowledge comes as a paradox about Paco and about humankind in general. While Paco’s suffering, past and present, evokes the reader’s sympathy, especially since many townspeople reject him or belittle him, that sympathy is checked by knowledge of his participation in the gang rape. His present state—in which his every movement brings pain, his dreams torment him, and drugs only make life tolerable—is perhaps overdrawn to the point of sentimentality. Paco’s survivor’s guilt is more successfully, because more subtly, handled. Paco lives just as much among the ghost of Alpha Company as he does among the living.
Ernest Monroe serves as a father figure and as a connection to America’s war-riddled history. His present situation of responsibility and his active compassion suggest that the transformations of war need not be permanent. Ernest cannot forget, but does not live within, the traumas of his World War II experiences. He serves as one possible future for Paco.
Jesse is more obviously a foil for Paco. They have seen the horrors of the same war, and they have returned to the same inhospitable homeland, a country that does not seem to have a place for them. Heinemann employs the loquacious Jesse to articulate those perspectives of the Vietnam veteran that tight-lipped, drug-slowed Paco cannot or will not. A somewhat comic character, Jesse is also the conscious incarnation of a Vietnam veteran cliché. His tall-tale drifter manner has connections with frontier literature and legend.
Gallagher, prominent in the Vietnam flashback scenes, is a streetwise Chicagoan who is defined as the company killer and the company clown. For Gallagher, it seems natural to put on the attitudes and behavior that war demands. He seems made for it.
Cathy, the niece of the couple who run the Geronimo Hotel, is the most prominent female character in the novel. She, like the others, is defined (and defines herself) as a sexual object. Such portrayals of women are a perplexing ingredient in Heinemann’s first two novels. Her diary provides one of the several versions or pieces of a story that Paco himself never fully tells.