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Paco's Story ()

National Book Award Winners (1987)

Paco Sullivan arrives in the town of Boone on a bus, without two dollars to his name.  He's the physically and psychically devastated sole survivor of a fire fight in Vietnam, his wounds so bad that the medic who first treated him demanded a transfer and gradually drank his own life away.  The America that Paco returned to is profoundly disinterested in his wartime experiences.  Young people seem not to even know about the war and older folks, like Ernest Monroe, an ex-Marine veteran of Iwo Jima, who gives Paco a job washing dishes at his Texas Lunch diner, are more interested in telling him their own war stories.

Paco is haunted by memories of Vietnam and, quite literally, by the spirits of his dead fellow soldiers--in fact, they narrate the book.  As he tries to put together a "normal" life, his continual immersion in the dishwashing sink seems to represent an attempt to wash away past sins--atrocities committed during the war--and a kind of rebirth through baptism.  He gradually develops a strange voyeuristic relationship with Cathy, the flirtatious niece of the owners of the Geronimo Hotel, where he's staying.  But in the end, the dynamic between them turns out to be something very different than what he believes it to be and as the story ends he gets back on the bus and heads out of town.

This isn't a bad novel by any means, and it's certainly better than Toni Morrison's Beloved, which it rather notoriously beat out for the National Book Award, but I found that much of it simply didn't work for me.  The unusual narrative device, of letting the dead speak, quickly loses it's charm and becomes sort of artificial and intrusive.  It becomes especially distracting during passages where the spirit guide renders Paco's thoughts and feelings.  The story itself is kind of an amalgam of clichés from the popular culture's rather deranged view of the war.  In particular, there's one scene in which he participates in a gang rape that is purely obligatory, rather than growing organically out of the story.  The author is a Vietnam veteran, so I'm hesitant to simply dismiss it as pandering, but one senses that it is there because Heinemann thinks the reader expects it to be.

The odd narrative structure, Paco's lack of any life outside of his mundane job, and the derivative nature of the war scenes, all serve to prevent us from feeling any connection with Paco.  Talk of fictional personae coming to life on the page is relatively silly, but these factors continually remind us that he's merely a character.  To a degree, we admire the inner drive that keeps him moving forward, but we have no idea where it comes from or why he keeps on.  Ultimately, this is the only occasionally affecting story of a survivor whose survival, though admirable in itself, fails to convey any broader meaning to the reader.


Grade: (C+)


Book-related and General Links:
    -ESSAY: The Nui Ba Den (Larry Heinemann, Vietnam Online, American Experience, PBS)
    -STORY : The Fragging (Larry Heinemann, Atlantic Monthly,  June, 1997)
    -REVIEW : of These Good Men By Michael Norman (Larry Heinemann, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Muddy Boots and Red Socks A Reporter's Life By Malcolm W. Browne  (Larry Heinemann, NY Times Book Review)
    -INTERVIEW: A Conversation with Larry Heinemann  (June 25, 1997, The Atlantic)
    -ESSAY : Critic's Notebook; Did 'PACO'S STORY' DESERVE ITS AWARD? (MICHIKO KAKUTANI, NY Times, November 16, 1987)
    -ARTICLE : Heinemann leaving fiction, but not Vietnam, behind (April 23, 1994, Elisabeth Sherwin)
    -ESSAY : State Rape: Representations of Rape in Viet Nam (Karen Stuhldreher, Political Science Department, University of Washington, Seattle)
    -REVIEW : of PACO'S STORY By Larry Heinemann (Christopher Benfey, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : Jan 21, 1988 Robert Towers: All-American Novels, NY Review of Books
               Paco's Story by Larry Heinemann
               That Night by Alice McDermott
               Cigarettes by Harry Mathews
    -REVIEW : of COOLER BY THE LAKE By Larry Heinemann (Tim Sandlin, NY Times Book Review)

    -Vietnam Online: developed to accompany Vietnam: A Television History (American Experience, PBS)