The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Paco Sullivan is soft-spoken, withdrawn, and polite.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.

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Paco Sullivan

Paco Sullivan, the main character. He is the sole survivor of a fire fight at Fire Base Harriet, in which ninety-three men died from a combination of North Vietnamese Army attacks and “friendly fire.” Paco is resentful for being the only man left alive from the fight, but he wants to get on with his life. After multiple surgeries, he must use a cane, has horrendous scars, and takes prescription drugs every day. Paco was the booby trap expert for his company, and he killed several men. He also had watched most of the members of his company rape and murder a Vietcong woman. In Vietnam, Paco dealt with life by smoking marijuana and opium; in the United States, he takes tranquilizers and drinks. He travels as far as his money will take him, haunted by the ghosts of Fire Base Harriet. Paco takes a job washing dishes in Boone, a small town. At the end of the book, he leaves after learning that a local college girl initially had been drawn to his scars but finally decided he was pitiful. Paco’s life is not even tragic; it is grand melodrama.

The ghosts

The ghosts, from Fire Base Harriet, who narrate the story. There is actually a single narrative voice. The ghosts are omniscient; they see into Paco and all other characters, including the living versions of some of themselves. They are storytellers, always ready to go off on tangents into seemingly irrelevant tales. They also get into Paco’s situation while he is semiconscious in Vietnam and into the minds of sleeping “grunts.” If there is a moral voice, which is questionable, it must come from these voices.


Gallagher, who made the decision to rape and personally killed the Vietcong woman. He carried a .357 Magnum in a shoulder holster, in violation of the...

(The entire section is 741 words.)