By Larry Heinemann
Original Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Current Publisher: Vintage Books
(Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group)
Patricia Smith writes:
Toni Morrison’s Beloved was a shape-shifting effort, a shocking and visceral narrative that was a revelatory slap in the face for everyone who’d filed slavery away as a mere tragic institution. It ripped back slavery’s cliched veneer and forced us to confront subtle gradations of shade and light in the very human, often painfully conflicted hearts of its characters. Beloved was an unflinching look at the texture of family and how we find both solace and betrayal within its clutches.
Of course, the 1987 National Book Award for fiction was a given. It would be a a somber nod from the academy, an acknowledgement that America has a place for its brutal chronicles, its don’t-wanna-hear-it-again, alas, its black women with insistent tales to tell.
However, the honor was snagged by Larry Heinemann’s Paco’s Story. I remember not being astonished alone. After the awards were announced, the discussions were not about the merits of the winning book. Instead, gossipy lit circles whispered conspiracy theories and weighed explanations for the judges’ odd compromise. I remember one of them in particular. The panel decided to rebel against the huge groundswell of popular and critical success of Beloved, and wanted to shine a spotlight on one of the lesser-known--but in their eyes, equally talented--nominees. While Toni Morrison is no commercialized goddess a la Janet Evanovich, Beloved was firmly entrenched on the New York Times bestseller list (as was Philip Roth’s The Counterlife, another ’87 nominee), which, surprisingly, may not have been a good thing.
That’s one way of looking at it, but here’s the explanation I settled on.
Americans will never be able to wrap their collective minds around the horrible realities of slavery--but that doesn’t stop us from convincing ourselves that we have. In 1987, coming to terms with slavery was pretty much a done deal. It happened, it was very bad and we didn’t particularly want to be reminded of it again and again, especially in a society that was hurtling toward--ahem--”post-racial.”
Instead, it was time to begin trying to wrap our collective minds around the horrible realities of Vietnam--why in hell we were there, what we accomplished, the numbing human and psychological toll it exacted. And Paco’s Story played that hand perfectly. The hero was somewhat of a composite of the war’s damaged souls, alienated and confounded upon their return home, absolutely refusing to be invisible. In my opinion, the novel that told his tale was not the most deserving novel that year, but it was the novel America needed in order to believe that it had learned something.
Patricia Smith is the author of five books of poetry, most recently Blood Dazzler, which was a 2008 National Book Award finalist.
Harold Augenbraum writes:
Imagine if John Rambo returned from Vietnam so physically and emotionally wounded that instead of ending up destroying a small town he arrived penniless in that small town and took a job as a bus-boy and dishwasher in a virtually generic hash joint for a decorated World War Two marine vet to metaphorically lick his wounds and then move on. Paco’s story—as opposed to Paco’s Story—then becomes a small part of the town’s monomyth, repeated endlessly to anyone who will listen: Who was that guy who worked there? Remember him? His name was Paco? The guy with the limp. Nice fellow. What was his story? I mean, we knew he was maimed and that he was injured in Vietnam, but how did he end up here, and what happened to him, where did he go? Along the way we meet other wounded individuals—Paco is simply wounded a lot more than anyone else, scars all over rather than in limited supply for everyone else, bad dreams torture him into inaction. Heinemann’s brilliance is that whenever Paco’s world trails into the maudlin, he flings us back to Vietnam, the firefight that killed all of Paco’s platoon, the months in the hospital on various pain-killing drugs, and so on, and the anodyne of the present becomes justified, and realistic, and the story of one forgotten, generic GI in the non-descript town of Boone (note the ironies), becomes part of the local lore, something that happened, as Steinbeck once titled Of Mice and Men, and became a temporary side-story of local history.
Harold Augenbraum is Executive Director of the National Book Foundation, an editor and translator.
Fiction Finalists that Year:
- Alice McDermott for That Night
- Toni Morrison for Beloved
- Howard Norman for The Northern Lights
- Philip Roth for The Counterlife
Fiction Judges that Year: Not available
The Year in Literature:
- A Summons to Memphis by Peter Taylor won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
- Joseph Brodsky won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
- Paco’s Story was Larry Heinemann’s second and most successful novel. Black Virgin Mountain (2005), a memoir/travelogue documenting his military experience, is his only nonfiction work.
- While serving in Vietnam, Heinemann fought in a battle near the Cambodian border in which filmmaker Oliver Stone also participated. Heinemann writes of this battle in his first novel, Close Quarters (1977), and in Black Virgin Mountain, and it also appears in the climactic battle scene in Stone's film, Platoon.
- Larry Heinemann's Wikipedia Entry
- Larry Heinemann in Conversation with Kurt Jacobsen
Logos Winter 2003
- A Conversation with Larry Heinemann
June 25, 1997
The Atlantic Monthly
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