Paco’s Story by Larry Heinemann

Paco’s Story by Larry Heinemann chronicles the war experiences of Paco, the only surviving soldier of the Fire Base Harriette massacre from Alpha Company.  The narrative is unusual in that Paco does not tell his own story of his survival or his recovery and ultimate return to the United States from the Vietnam War.  Though readers get to know Paco through the eyes of others and his nightmares, Paco is a vivid and lost character in search of peace.

“Paco is in constant motion, trying to get settled and comfortable with that nagging, warm tingling in his legs and hips.”  (Page 35)

Heinemann’s language is raw, scraping down to the guts and bones in his readers, making them cringe, turn away, and stand agape.  A number of readers may find the graphic scenes in this novel to be too much, but what makes them uncomfortable are the realities of war and the breakdown of humanity.  Paco struggles not only with why he was the only survivor, but how to assimilate himself back into a society he no longer recognizes once stateside.

“(A body never gets used to humping, James.  When the word comes, you saddle your rucksack on your back, take a deep breath and set your jaw good and tight, then lean a little forward, as though you’re walking into a stiff and blunt nor’easter, and begin by putting one foot in front of the other.  . . .”  (Page 9)

Paco is an enigma, which is typical of most returning soldiers from the Vietnam War.  “The intricate ironwork–the tension beams and torsion beams and, overhead, trellis-looking crossbeams–is delicate and well made” (Page 66-7) is an image that will stick with readers as they wonder about Paco and his ability to return from the land of ghosts and emerge from the memories that haunt him.

“And he’s just a man like the rest of us, James, who wants to fuck away all that pain and redeem his body.”  (Page 173)

Heinemann is a brilliant writer, meshing the surreal with the reality of Paco’s life as a dishwasher in the Texas Lunch of Boone, Texas.  Ghosts that push Paco to remember, veterans that tell their own stories, and the looks of townsfolk as he hobbles to and from work all serve to keep Paco entrenched in the jungle with the events that took his innocence and his life.  Paco’s Story is an every soldier story in the way it depicts the horrors of war and the impact of those events on the psyche of those soldiers.

If you’ve missed the read-a-long discussion, please check out my answers to the discussion questions for sections 1, 2, and 3.

This is my 8th book for the 2010 Vietnam War Reading Challenge.


  1. I’m going to tell my oldest son about this one. He would find this one extremely interesting.

  2. This sounds like such an intense and powerful read. Thanks for the review.

  3. This certainly sounds like a powerful book. I’m not sure I would have gotten through it but it sounds like those of you reading it have thought it one of the best you’ve read.

  4. I think Kathy made a great point in her comment.

    So glad this was the book chosen for the challenge, otherwise I’m not sure I would have read it, and I ‘m so glad that I did.

  5. This sounds like an important book to read because it makes the reader so uncomfortable.

  6. This ranks up there among the best Vietnam War novels I’ve read. It’s hard to read, but it’s war, and war (and it’s lingering effects) isn’t pretty. I’ll be posting my review later today.