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...
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