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.

Final Week of the Paco’s Story Readalong

This is the final week of the Paco’s Story read-a-long, check out the discussion questions.

If you missed the first round, second round, and third round of questions, check them out.  You also can check out my responses to section 1, section 2, and section 3.

In the final chapters, the narrator takes us back to Vietnam and sheds light on some of the horrors of the war and Paco’s part in the conflict.  We learn that Paco has a specialty in booby traps and bombs, and that each member of the unit has their own tasks.  The unit is tight knit and the camaraderie is made evident, but there is a darker side to this group.

Paco and his men find a young, female Viet Cong member after she kills several of their fellow soldiers.  Unfortunately, her punishment is the worst thing a woman can imagine, and Paco takes part.  This scene is detailed and gruesome, but it serves to demonstrate how far the war can twist the human mind and its ability to discern right from wrong when revenge becomes the top priority.  It is not just revenge against the female Viet Cong for killing their men, but for all the enemies who have won battles and killed Americans and dragged them into this war.

In previous chapters, we’ve seen Cathy watch Paco from afar and flirt with him. . . tease him.  She teases him when he comes back to the Hotel Geronimo as she waits in her doorway in little more than a man’s dress shirt, and Paco’s expectation is that if he can get to her door before she closes it, they will become as intimate as they have imagined.  Her flirtations know no bounds.  One evening she leaves town, and Paco sneaks inside her room and reads her diary.  Sadly, what she says about him cuts him to the core, making him realize that his fantasies of fitting in and returning to the living are just that fantasies.

Another interesting aspect of Paco’s Story is the similarities that can be drawn between Vietnam and Boone, Texas, from the hot and sticky climate to the desolate feeling of being alone in the “jungle.”  Whether its enemy territory or a town full of people that do not want you there, both places make Paco feel ill-at-ease and out of place.  Setting plays an important role in the story and helps establish the pressures Paco continues to feel even though the war is over.

Finally, the ending of the book may be ambiguous, but it is fitting given our visit with Jesse and his penchant for traveling across the United States to experience life and forget about war.  Paco seems to be embarking on a similar path.

Paco’s Story is a novel that anyone interested the Vietnam War should . . . no must read.

Even if you aren’t participating in the Vietnam War Reading Challenge, we hope that you will join us for the Paco’s Story read-a-long.

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.

Paco’s Story Readalong Week 3

This is week 3 of the Paco’s Story read-a-long, and the third set of discussion questions were posted on Wednesday, July 21 for Chapter 5.

If you missed the first round and second round of questions, check them out.  You also can check out my previous post for section 1 and section 2.

Paco’s Story takes a new turn with the narrator showing us how well Paco is acclimating to his new life in Boone.  He’s the dishwasher at the Texas Lunch, but his work is not all that keeps him moving.  His dreams are ripe with danger and disturbing dreams.  The narrator’s identity becomes clearer in this chapter, and the ghosts of Paco’s past are identified.

Paco seems to take to the work at the diner because it provides a routine with very clear parameters, much like those in the military.  But once asleep, Paco is at the mercy of his past and the ghosts that still haunt him.  While he hasn’t outwardly asked why he was the only one that survived the massacre, it is clear that he wonders, though in his dreams he actively keeps his head down to make sure a different outcome does not occur.

The complexity of Paco’s character shines in this chapter — his hold on the past and the tug of the here-and-now, his ease with fellow soldiers before the massacre, and his ability to become robotic and get tasks done.  However, he is still paralyzed, as paralyzed as he was in the jungles of Vietnam, unable to share the darkest moments of his life and of the war.  They are too fresh, too real.

Even if you aren’t participating in the Vietnam War Reading Challenge, we hope that you will join us for the Paco’s Story read-a-long.  Until next week.

Paco’s Story Readalong Week 2

This is week 2 of the Paco’s Story read-a-long, and the second set of  discussion questions were posted on Wednesday, July 14 for Chapters 3 and 4.

If you missed the first round of questions, check them out.  You also can check out my previous post for section 1.

Like the other chapters, readers only see Paco through the eyes of other characters or the unknown/ghost narrator.  We learn that Paco is on medication to keep the pain away, but how much medication would it take to keep the images of war out of your mind?

One of the most memorable passages for me is in Chapter 3:  “He [Paco] is not really asleep, hunched as awkwardly as he is, but mighty groggy from the several additional doses of medication — muscle relaxers and anti-depressants — to the point of a near-helpless stupor.  . . . Paco is in constant motion . . . ” (Page 35)

As readers move through these next two chapters we see Paco move from location to location — from the bar to the diner to the antique store to the barbershop –but in a way, he’s motionless as he sits and listens to each person or people he meets — silent.  Paco is a dichotomy in this way, and it makes him an enigma.

The narrator continues to demonstrate the reactions to Paco the war veteran and we learn a bit more about his recovery, but do we get to know Paco?  Should this story be told by Paco?  Readers may like to understand his inner thoughts, but I wonder if he thinks much beyond the moment.  He seems focused on finding a job and a place to stay, but not much else.

Even if you aren’t participating in the Vietnam War Reading Challenge, we hope that you will join us for the Paco’s Story read-a-long.  Until next week.

Paco’s Story Readalong Week 1

This is week 1 of the Paco’s Story read-a-long, and the first discussion questions were posted on Wednesday, July 7 for Chapters 1 and 2.

Paco’s Story is about the soul survivor of the Fire Base Harriette massacre where Alpha Company was obliterated.  Heinemann’s writing is raw and honest, and in the first Chapters we’re introduced to Paco through an unnamed narrator, who could be the ghost of a soldier killed in action during the massacre.  Readers learn that Paco is the soul survivor from Alpha Company, and his survival had a serious impact on a medic who until he met Paco had failed to save many soldiers injured in the Vietnam War.

The unnamed narrator is brutal in his honesty about Paco’s injuries and the devastation suffered by soldiers in the field.  He wants to tell his story, Paco’s story, even if people are unprepared to hear it or don’t want to hear it at all.  This is a story that must be told.  I wonder if that is how Heinemann felt while he was writing this novel — did he believe that this story was his calling, something he had to tell.

Even if you aren’t participating in the Vietnam War Reading Challenge, we hope that you will join us for the Paco’s Story read-a-long.  Until next week.

Join the Paco’s Story Read-a-long

I’ll be participating in the War Through the Generations Vietnam War Reading Challenge read-a-long of Paco’s Story by Larry Heinemann in July.

For those outside of the Vietnam War Reading Challenge who are interested in joining the Paco’s Story read-a-long, you are more than welcome to join us.

How it will work: You read the designated chapter(s) and visit War Through the Generations on the Wednesday for the discussion questions

What you do: You read and then talk about what you’ve read so far and answer the discussion questions provided either in the comments on that Wednesday or on your own blog.

Here’s the schedule:

Week 1: Chapters 1 and 2
Discussion Questions posted on July 7

Week 2: Chapters 3 and 4
Discussion Questions posted on July 14

Week 3: Chapter 5
Discussion Questions posted on July 21

Week 4: Chapter 6 and 7
Discussion Questions posted on July 28

For discussions on twitter use the hashtag #Paco

***Oh, and here’s the button for the read-a-long: (link to image is http://farm2.static.flickr.com/1303/4679014202_5351e02497_o.jpg)


Thanks for making the button Monica!