The judges of literary prizes probably feel the need for originality almost as strongly as the writers whom they assess. In a year that produced major new works by Philip Roth and Toni Morrison, a notable collection of stories by Richard Ford, and a favorably reviewed best-seller by Gail Godwin, the judges of the National Book Award for Fiction went well out of their way to avoid the obvious and instead bestowed their wreath upon a novel that received some attention when it appeared but had not, so far as I know, attracted much of a following in the subsequent months. The discovery of an almost unknown work of great merit would indeed be a glorious thing—and a deserved rebuke to those editors and reviewers who had failed to do it timely justice. Is such the case with Paco’s Story, a second novel by Larry Heinemann which has as its subject the Vietnam War and its consequences for one of the “grunts” who served in it?
The novel begins by proclaiming somewhat defensively that “This ain’t no war story.”
War stories are out—one, two, three, and a heave-ho, into the lake you go with all the other alewife scuz and foamy harbor scum. But isn’t it a pity. All those crinkly, soggy sorts of laid-by tellings crowded together as thick and pitiful as street cobbles, floating mushy bellies up, like so much moldy shag rugs (dead as rusty-ass doornails and smelling so peculiar and un-Christian). Just isn’t it a pity, because here and there and yonder among the corpses are some prize-winning, leg-pulling daisies—some real pop-in-the-oven muffins, so to speak, some real softly lobbed, easy-out line drives.
But that’s the way of the world, or so the fairy tales go. The people with the purse strings and apron springs gripped in their hot and soft little hands denounce war stories—with perfect diction and practiced gestures—a geek-monster species of evil-ugly rumor.
The above passage is worth quoting to illustrate not only the novel’s haranguing tone but the metaphoric oddities to which its narrative voice is prone. The voice, we gradually learn, is a collective one, assigned to the dead men of Alpha Company, which, except for one survivor, was wiped out by a nighttime Vietcong assault on Fire Base Harriette.
This ghostly guide constantly exhorts and chides the reader on behalf of that survivor, Paco Sullivan, who for two days lies hideously wounded in the muck and the hot sun, covered with flies, maggots, and gnats, before being discovered by a medic from Bravo Company (who is permanently traumatized by the horror of Paco’s condition and in later life drunkenly tells the story night after night). Transported by helicopter to a base hospital, Paco, despite his lacerated, splintered, and shattered state and despite the stitches in his penis, is able, a few nights later, to enjoy the sexual ministrations of a compassionate nurse.
Back in the States, Paco, who …