The name Larry Heinemann meant little to me when I was asked to write his entry for the Dictionary of Literary Biography, a prestigious scholarly reference series available in university libraries. Heinemann, who died last week at age 75, was a Vietnam veteran best known for the controversial selection of his novel Paco’s Story as the National Book Award winner in 1987, where it won out, most notably, over Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and also Philip Roth’s The Counterlife. At the time the DLB contacted me, I hadn’t read Paco’s Story or Heinemann’s other Vietnam War novel Close Quarters (1977). To the extent I knew anything about Heinemann, I vaguely held what seems to have been a general sentiment: the selection of Paco’s Story as National Book Award winner constituted a great wrong to Morrison, and that Heinemann’s novel had been selected for reasons related not just to literary achievement, but race, and for which Heinemann was somehow implicated.
Still, I took the DLB assignment, because I sensed that contemporary war-writing, the subject of Time Now, might be better understood by a deep dive in a body of writing—Vietnam War literature—that preceded it. I was also curious about Heinemann, and how his name somehow had not achieved the stature of other Vietnam War writers such as Michael Herr and Tim O’Brien. Mostly though, I wanted to explore how a National Book Award winning vet-author had not just been overlooked by history, but dismissed by it.
Subsequently, I read all of Heinemann’s books: Close Quarters, Paco’s Story, a third novel titled Cooler by the Lake (1992), and his memoir Black Virgin Mountain (2005). I also read his introductions to a coffee-table book titled Changing Chicago: A Photodocumentary (1989) and Svetlana Alexievich’s Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War (1992), and a 1997 short story published in Atlantic titled “A Fragging.” Finally, I read as much scholarship on Heinemann as I could find, and then got to work. 5,000 words later, I submitted my entry, which eventually appeared in volume 382 of the DLB, alongside entries on Michael Chabon, Don DeLillo, E.L. Doctorow, Louise Erdrich, Jonathan Franzen, Elmore Leonard, Cormac McCarthy, Walter Mosley, Thomas Pynchon, Philip Roth, Richard Russo, Donna Tartt, John Updike, and Colson Whitehead.
I invite you too to read Heinemann’s work and also my DLB entry, if you have access to a university library. Be warned, though, by the standards of post-9/11 war-writing, Close Quarters and Paco’s Story are brutal in terms of depicting war violence and atrocity. Dosier, the protagonist of Close Quarters, and Paco, the titular hero of Paco’s Story, are soldiers in Vietnam who do monstrous things, and the novels suggest they become monsters as a result. The problem is compounded by the fact that Close Quarters is based closely on Heinemann’s own tour; he later called it “straight-up fictionalized memoir.” If we take that statement as true, it makes it unavoidable to contemplate that the author himself has done the monstrous things he describes and has become a monster himself, much like his character Dosier. I’m not joking. Imagine if recently-pardoned war criminals such as Clint Lorance, Mathew Golsteyn, and Edward Gallagher and the things they did were featured characters and events in novels written by themselves. Now multiply that by ten and suggest their criminal acts were an everyday feature of a year’s tour in a combat zone. Add in explicit racism and extreme misogyny. Take it even further: Close Quarters features a scene in which a Vietnamese camp-follower is coerced into fucking and giving head to an entire platoon. A similar scene reappears in Paco’s Story; in this case an underage Vietnamese girl is gang-raped by an Army platoon and then shot in the face.
These scenes are shocking, but Heinemann’s tone and point don’t seem sensational, or defensive or confessional or even accusatory. Instead, the scenes and the novels constitute a serious representation of a soldier’s capacity for evil as he is caught up by the forces of war. It’s almost certain that Lorance, Golsteyn, and Gallagher don’t have the inclination, talent, or perseverance to write novels, or at least good ones, but try to imagine your reaction if talented Iraq War veteran-authors Matt Gallagher, Phil Klay, or Elliot Ackerman wrote novels about their platoons gang-raping an Iraqi girl and then shooting her. What is the worst thing they saw or did? What are they not proud of in the least? That’s where Heinemann takes it. Or, try to imagine Chris Kyle writing American Sniper after reading Melville and Tolstoy, authors Heinemann studied upon return from Vietnam. It’s like that, and somehow compelling instead of off-putting. An early review of Close Quarters captures some of the effect: “Dosier elicits the reader’s empathy throughout this extremely unpleasant, but somehow touching novel. Intense is the author’s (a Vietnam veteran’s)style/approach.” That intensity manifests itself by a hostility and anger that emanates from the pages of Close Quarters and Paco’s Story so vividly it makes them both hard to read and hard to put down.
What to make of it all? A quote from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen offers a possible response:
Larry Heinemann’s Close Quarters was a novel I read when I was very young, 12-years old, it was a horrible experience. I wasn’t emotionally or literarily equipped to deal with it. So for a long time I really hated that book. But I think Heinemann actually did the right thing by unrelentingly focusing on atrocity without editorializing that these things are wrong.
Nguyen’s forgiving sentiment—one talented author to another—opens up complicated avenues for contemplation. In his memoir Black Virgin Mountain, Heinemann writes about Close Quarters and Paco’s Story:
“I wrote those two books in an attempt to make clear that this is what awaits you—or something like—the work of the war will transform you into something you don’t recognize; that the inevitable reverberations of the war are irresistible and virtually irremediable; that this is what you make when you make war.”
In Heinemann’s quote, what produces “this” is total war, fought for politically and morally suspect reasons, and badly-led by the officers responsible. Heinemann suggests that the unavoidable result of sending men to fight in such wars is barbarity on the battlefield and forever ruination of the men involved. In contrast, Iraq and Afghanistan were not total wars, but limited wars, which is important. If a cultural and military logic drove men to become monsters in Vietnam, restraints were in place in Afghanistan and Iraq to forestall that transformation. Lorance, Golsteyn, and Edward Gallagher knew what those restraints were, as did all soldiers deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan and sent outside the wire with guns in their hands. They knew them in Vietnam, too, but a general reckoning prevailed that found breaches of them forgivable. A little. Sometimes. Depending on the circumstances. And how you felt about things.
In my DLB entry, I reconcile the conflux of ideas by writing:
Without validating [combat soldiers’] actions and ideas, Heinemann refuses to condemn them, either; while their brutality, racism, and sexism cannot be denied, he shows that their contempt for authority, pretense, and ignorance is estimable and their feral instincts for self-preservation justifiable. In Heinemann’s final accounting, far more reprehensible than the barbaric combat grunt and the disturbed and disturbing veteran are the people, circumstances, and events that make young men do monstrous deeds.
That certainly doesn’t close out the conversation on the subject or Heinemann. For now though, I’ll end with a brief exploration of Heinemann’s life after Paco’s Story. Though he seems to have preferred the company of fellow soldiers who had seen and done the kinds of things in Vietnam as he had, Heinemann never deified soldiering or glorified the supposed wisdom and camaraderie of the soldier brotherhood. He never lost his hatred of war and the military, while, interestingly, finding purpose and perhaps atonement through repeated return visits to Vietnam, where he came to appreciate the beauty of the land and the people and the sagacity of their military men. He also taught for many years at Texas A&M and elsewhere, pouring himself into encouraging fledgling writers of all stripes.
Heinemann seems not to have spoken out or written on Iraq and Afghanistan, but he was active on social media and occasionally I would see comments by him on the feeds of friends. One in particular I remember. On a thread about PTSD and how to help veterans post-war, he commented to the effect that the best thing any troubled vet could do to regain equilibrium was to “find something to do with your hands that helps people.” That seems common sensible and practical: boiled-down wisdom from a life spent thinking about the matter. For Heinemann, what he did with his hands that helped people was write and comment on his students’ writing. That application of his own advice probably entailed a little bit too much time alone with bad memories and worst fears, but still I like it very much, even as it suggests that the person Heinemann was really trying to help was himself. RIP.
I have written at more length about the 1987 National Book Award controversy here. In it I suggest that Toni Morrison’s last novel Home represented a late-life response to Paco’s Story (Morrison also died in 2019). The academic scholarship on Heinemann is trenchant. If so inclined, seek out Susan Jefford’s “Tattoos, Scars, Diaries, and Writing Masculinity”; Stacey Peebles’ “The Ghost That Won’t Be Exorcised: Larry Heinemann’s Paco Story”; and Joseph Darda’s “The Ethnicization of Veteran America: Larry Heinemann, Toni Morrison, and Military Whiteness after Vietnam.”