Close Quarters by Larry Heinemann

Source: Public Library
Hardcover, 335 pgs.
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Close Quarters by Larry Heinemann provides a stark view of the life of draftees, like Philip Dosier (Flip), and he pulls no punches in his account of this young man’s life in war.  He’s too young at home to buy alcohol or to vote, but in Nam, he can kill, swear, smoke pot, drink, and die for his country all without explanation or understanding.  Troops are to follow orders, and not to question, but in Flip’s case, and those around him, ignoring, circumventing, or blatantly disregarding orders can be a sign of brotherhood or stupidity.  Close quarters is a fine-tuned look at soldiering, the interactions between grunts and officers, and the friendships fired in the kiln of war.

“I can never go home.  I just want to see it.  I won’t say a thing, cross my heart.  I just want to see it one more time.  I want to smell it, touch it ever so lightly, put my ear to it and hear it tap, tap, tap.” (pg. 279)

“When I first came into the platoon, that was what struck me about the tracks.  They were huge and lumbering, stunted animations of some slow and wild thing.  Noisy and fat, grunting cartoons, smelling of thirty-weight oil and gunpowder and beer piss, … And I am filthy all the time.  I feel that grit, that crawl of the skin, something itching all the time, and greasy.” (pg. 280)

As these men run on adrenaline and beer — one to get through the fear and the other to numb the horror — they are unaware that they have changed.  In the lulls between ambushes, missions, and unexpected firefights, these men are like friends who hang out drinking beers and becoming sounding boards.  To become a sounding board for someone else is far easier than dealing with the war’s affect on yourself in some cases, but there are some images that cannot be shaken.

Close Quarters by Larry Heinemann is claustrophobic in its graphic violence, its frank spoken dialogue between male soldiers, and the threat of war that surrounds them all — it’s that unexploded bomb in the next room.  It ranges from lull moments of camaraderie and R&R with a prostitute in Tokyo to the small round hole left in the head of the man next to you.  Heinemann expresses the complexities of war in one soldier’s account, and he examines post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) so that readers realize just how real the war still is even when veterans arrive home.

About the Author:

Larry Heinemann (born 1944) is an American novelist born and raised in Chicago. His body of work is primarily concerned with the Vietnam War. Mr. Heinemann served a combat tour in Vietnam from 1967 to 1968 with the 25th Infantry Division, and has described himself as the most ordinary of soldiers. Mr. Heinemann’s military experience is documented in his most recent work, Black Virgin Mountain (2005), his only nonfiction piece. Black Virgin Mountain also chronicles his return trips to Vietnam and his blunt personal and political views concerning the country and the war. He has often referred to his books about Vietnam as an accidental trilogy.

While serving in Vietnam, Mr. Heinemann fought in a battle near the Cambodian border in which filmmaker Oliver Stone also participated. Mr. Heinemann writes of the battle in his first novel, Close Quarters (1977), and in Black Virgin Mountain, and it also forms the basis for the climactic battle scene in Stone’s Platoon.

His fictional prose style is uncompromisingly harsh and honest, and reflects his working class background. His second and critically acclaimed novel is Paco’s Story (1986), which won the 1987 National Book Award for Fiction, topping Toni Morrison’s Beloved in a decision that some thought controversial.[1] At the time, Mr. Heinemann’s only response to the controversy was that the prize, a check for $10,000, was already cashed, and that the Louise Nevelson sculpture, a gift from the National Book Foundation, was not likely to be returned. Paco’s Story relates the quasi-picaresque postwar experiences of its titular protagonist, who is haunted by the ghosts of his dead comrades from the war. These ghosts provide the novel’s narrative voice. The story deals with the role of the American GI as both victim and victimizer. It is interesting to note that ghost stories are common in both American and Vietnamese literature about the war.

His third novel, Cooler by the Lake (1992), departed from the topic of Vietnam and was not very successful, either critically and commercially.