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Our man Paco, not dead but sure as shit should be, lies flat on his back and wide to the sky, with slashing lacerations, big watery burn blisters, and broken, splintered, ruined legs.  He wallows in this greasy, silken muck that covers him and everything else for a stone’s throw and dries to a stinking sandy crust.  He lies there that night and all the next day, the next night and half the second day, with his heels hooked on a gnarled, charred, nearly fire-hardened vine root; immobile.  And he comes to consciousness in the dark of that first long night with a heavy dew already soaked through the rags of his clothes, and he doesn’t know what hit him.

(from Paco’s Story, page 18)

Set during the Vietnam War, Paco’s Story, winner of the 1987 National Book Award for fiction, is a haunting novel about the only survivor of the massacre of Alpha Company at Fire Base Harriette.  Paco is an ordinary soldier who somehow managed to live, but it almost seems as though his surviving was the easy part.  Haunted by the ghosts of the soldiers who died that day, Paco must re-enter the land of the living.

Larry Heinemann uses a ghostly narrator to tell Paco’s story, someone who can observe the people who interact with Paco, how they feel about the war and their concern (or lack of) for the returning veterans.  Paco takes a bus to Boone, Texas, with his AWOL bag and a cane, and a sympathetic WWII veteran gives him a job as dishwasher at the Texas Lunch.  Full of painkillers and booze, Paco lives a quiet routine of work and sleep — quiet, aside from the nightmares.  The owner of the diner, Ernest, and Jesse, a Vietnam vet passing through Boone, talk about their wartime experiences, which is something Paco is unable to do, leaving that job to the narrator.

The narrative often seems choppy and can be difficult to follow at first, and I saw so many things I missed the first time I read this book in college.  There are many layers to Paco’s Story, from Paco himself to the secondary stories about the medic who found Paco and a promiscuous young woman intrigued by him, among others.  These asides might seem out of place at first glance, but given that Paco isn’t telling his own story, the reactions and observations of the people around him say a lot.

It is easy to pity Paco the victim, and Heinemann does a great job showing how difficult it is for Paco to live with the pain of his wounds and memories.  But Paco isn’t an innocent soul, and in a horrifying, brutally violent scene involving a Viet Cong girl, Heinemann drives home the point that war isn’t pretty.  Paco’s Story will force readers out of their comfort zones with graphic imagery and harsh language, but its raw honesty is what makes the book so important.  The book doesn’t sugar-coat or romanticize war, and readers soon understand why some Vietnam vets continue to struggle with memories of their experiences and find it hard to talk about what they did and what they witnessed as soldiers.

At War Through the Generations, we hosted a read-a-long for Paco’s Story during the month of July.  If you’d like to learn more about the book, check out Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4 of the discussion.

Disclosure: I purchased my worn-out copy of Paco’s Story. I am an Amazon associate.

© 2010 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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As part of the Vietnam War Reading Challenge that Serena and I are hosting at War Through the Generations, we’re holding our very first Read-a-long for Paco’s Story by Larry Heinemann — and you don’t have to be participating in the challenge to join us!  It’s very raw, powerful, and not for the faint of heart, but it’s an excellent and important novel.  In fact, Paco’s Story won the National Book Award for fiction in 1987.  Here’s the publisher’s summary:

Fire Base Harriette was supposed to be safe…but Alpha Company got wasted there — blown away — except for Paco, who was pretty well wasted himself.  Left for dead for two days, he lived — the sole survivor of a massacre.

Back in the States Paco wanders alone, periodically stopping and working at odd jobs.  But he cannot escape his memories:  the ghosts of the men killed that day at Fire Base Harriette.  Paco is chased by the war, confronted by it every time he looks down at himself.  His story captures the ordinary and unthinkable horrors of a G.I.’s life.

We will be reading the book throughout the month of July.  My copy only has 7 chapters and 210 pages, so it’s pretty short.  We’ll be reading one or two chapters per week, and on every Wednesday beginning July 7, we will post discussion questions on War Through the Generations.  Participants in the Read-a-long can answer the questions in the comments on on their blogs, but they are intended as a starting point for discussion, so feel free to ask your own questions or just talk about what touched you most in that week’s chapters.

For those of you interested, whether you’re part of the Vietnam War Reading Challenge or not, check out the Read-a-long details here.  We hope you’ll consider joining us!

Thank you, Monica, for the rockin’ button!

Disclosure: I am an Amazon associate.

© 2010 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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