Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Paco's Story

Paco's Story
By Larry Heinemann
Publisher: Vintage
Published: 2005
ISBN-13: 9781400076833
224 pages

Page 3, Chapter 1, The First Clean Fact: Let's begin with the first clean fact, James: 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 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 bellied up, like so much moldy shag rug (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.

I've been following Sandy Nawrot's participation of Paco's Story Read-along and couldn't resist reading the book myself. I ordered it from Book Depository (at the top left-hand corner, that's the cover of the book I bought) and when I received it in the mail, I jumped in straight away. Almost immediately I'm being blown away by its language and slang. Never have I read a war novel that shocked me into the reality of its brutality. Instead of a regular book review, I have decided to use the read-a-long format and let the discussion questions form the picture.


WEEK 1
(Chapters 1 and 2)
  1. Who do you think the narrator is?
    At this point, I still do not know. But as the story unfolds, it becomes clearer. Please see my answer for Week 3, Question 1. An interesting point is that the narrator tells Paco's story to James but James is not a character in the story. Heinemann explains this: The "James" comes from a custom of street folks engaging total strangers by calling them "Him" or "Jack" or sometimes "Jake" in a jivey sort of way [...]. It is like sharing a story across a kitchen table, etc. While this is explained in my edition, I read that in some other editions it was not.

  2. What do the opening paragraphs of Chapter 1 tell you about the narrator?
    They are filled with slang and "hard" dialogue. The narrator makes it clear that he is one of the grunts. The language is certainly not kid-friendly and is abundant with swearing. I tried to be in his shoes and followed his story that way.

  3. How do you think Paco’s survival impacted the medic’s world view? And how did that change the medic?
    The medic couldn't stomach what had happened to Paco. You see, Paco is the only one they found alive an was in a terrible, terrible condition, they wished he was dead. Being a medic, he had seen so many dead bodies and soon-will-be-dead ones after they are rescued. Why would Paco be any different? Paco's survival is a miracle.

  4. Is Paco’s Story narrated in a way that is “too” honest?
    I like it the way it is presented. Paco's Story shocked me; "slapped" me right, left and center; disgusted me; made me cry (when he talks about his father and the Army medals); everything about this book touches me. It is harsh and graphic. Dark and disturbing. It gives me a realization that all the people in this book, they have a story.

WEEK 2
(Chapters 3 and 4)
  1. Do you think Paco is ready to rejoin the living and will he easily re-enter “normal” life?
    Try going through what he has gone through and then answer this question. I think it will never be "normal" for him anymore. Not in this life.

  2. How do you think the lively atmosphere of Rita’s Tender Tap affects Paco?
    He is a man of few words and he is very direct when he speaks. He has a mission when he steps foot into Rita's Tender Tap and that is to look for a job and a place to stay. He may feel self-conscious with his physical condition holding a cane, limping, and all. But I felt that he is letting of all that go and focuses on his mission.

  3. Do you think Heinemann made the right choice in narrator, or do you believe Paco should be telling his own story?
    I like how it is done in the book. It feels like an observation and it's refreshing to have someone else tells Paco's story. It might feel different if Paco were to tell his own story, but then you see, Paco doesn't want to talk about it.

  4. Do you think the side stories about the medic who found Paco, the bus driver, and Mr. Elliot, etc., add to the narrative or take too much attention away from Paco, who seems to hide in the background during these asides?
    My answer is no. It is interesting to see what goes on in the thoughts of these people or how their lives are affected by it. They add to the story. I'm going to parrot Sandy in this because that's what I was thinking too. Here's what Sandy said: "In Mr. Elliot, we see a man damaged by his own wars and ghosts, and didn't even recognize the existence of the Vietnam War. The bus driver saw Paco as one in thousands that pass before his eyes in a year's time. The owner of the diner, on the other hand, was a Marine and saw in Paco a brother. Each of these characters represents everyman." Well said, my friend.

  5. How do you feel about Paco at this point in the book?
    I feel sorry for Paco, and here he is wounded in war and having difficulties trying to stay afloat in his own country. But I also admire his tenacity and determination.


WEEK 3
(Chapter 5)
  1. Is the identity of the narrator becoming more clear?
    It wasn't clear to me at the beginning of the book and I carried that big question with me until I've reached this chapter. It is not until page 136 of the book that it dawned on me that it is the ghost of of a soldier or their ghosts in Paco's unit. Check out these passages:
    "Not in all the hours that he lay terribly wounded--the rest of us long gone, Paco as good as left for dead--did he ask."

    "No James, Paco has never asked,
    Why me? It is we--the ghosts, the dead--who ask, Why him?

    So Paco was made to dream and remember, and we make it happen in this way, particularly on those nights when his work--washing the last of the dishes, clearing up and stowing down after closing--goes particularly well [...]. It is at those moments that is least wary, most receptive and dreamy. So we bestir and descend. We hover around him like an aura [...]."

  2. What is it about the work at the Texas Lunch that makes it so easy for Paco to assimilate?
    "The process is straightforward and mechanical, James, all arms and back, side-stepping and skipping--Paco leaning over the washtub, slopping garbage and burning-hot soapy bleach water on his T-shirt and doubled-up apron; his fingernails are white with grease and his face squinched up and one eye squeezed shut because of the cigarette he keeps in his lips. First the breakfast dishes (often every dish in the place) and some of the pots and pans, then catch up all afternoon (Paco coming to know many of the dishes and much of the cookware as individual objects--on sight; knowing that he washes some things five or six times a day)."
    Paco does his job in a predictable, methodical manner, just like in the military. He knows precisely what to expect in his job, what to do when his day starts and how his day will end. I'm glad that Ernest Monroe, the owner of Texas Lunch and former World War II Guadalcanal Marine who also fought on Iwo Jima, gave him the job. He seems to know that the day Paco steps into his restaurant, it is more than just to get lunch. A warrior knows what a warrior needs.

  3. What is the purpose of the dream sequences?
    Actually, I am not sure why the dreams are there. Maybe the ghosts of his fallen comrades want him to remember what had happened. Paco seems happy and contented, and it is during those times that the ghosts give him those dreams. There are parts that give me the creeps, so try to imagine this:
    "We come to stand behind him against the wall--we ghosts as flat and pale as a night-light, easy on the eyes. We reach out as one and begin to massage the top of his head; his scalp cringes and tingles. We work our way down the warm curve of his neck--so soothing and slack--and apply ourselves most deeply to the solid meat back of his shoulders. And Paco always obliges us; [...], when Paco is all but asleep, that is the moment we whisper in his ear, and give him something to think about--a dream or a reverie."
    The dreams, they are not happy ones. They are dark dreams and I share the same thoughts as Sandy, his dreams are the true indication of his psyche. I noticed too that when I dream, my dreams (or nightmares) often reflect the state of my mind.

  4. Why do you think Ernest and Jesse are so forthcoming with their war stories, but Paco is not?
    People react differently to various life events and it is no different with Paco. Some find it easy to share and are able to talk about it openly, but some prefer to keep tragedies to themselves. Paco is the sole survivor of the massacre that had befallen his unit at Fire Base Harriette in Vietnam. He was waiting to die after being out there in the sea of corpses and rotting flesh for two days. His body shattered, covered by flies and maggots. He now lives on daily ration of Librium and Valium. Now, you tell me if that was you and you would be able to talk about it.

WEEK 4
(Chapters 6 and 7)
  1. What is the significance of the rape scene? How does it change your opinion of Paco?
    The rape scene is one nasty bit in the story. The Vietcong girl who had ambushed the 1st platoon's night listening post and shot two of them dead, was taken in by the third guy. She's now a prisoner and Gallagher, one of the guys in the unit, decides to do something to her. Not only Gallagher but the whole platoon takes turn to have a go at the girl. And then he finishes her off with his .357 Magnum. Would this rape have happened if the Vietcong girl had never ambushed the unit and get herself caught? I'm not saying that what Gallagher did was right, though.

    I wouldn't say that I am disappointed in Paco. I don't think Paco participated in the terrible act of violence against the girl. Yes, he observed it but I think there is nothing he can do. Think about it. Two of his guys were killed by this girl. He was in the company of men who were raging both mentally and hormonally. Even the Lieutenant who heard everything wasn't doing anything about it.

  2. Cathy’s diary plays an integral role in Paco’s final decision. Why do you think it has such a drastic impact?
    Paco knows that Cathy has been observing him from her window when Paco's at work. Paco's attracted to her and maybe, just maybe, they could have something going. One day, the night after he heard the sexual escapade of Cathy with her boyfriend, he discovers that someone has been to his room when he comes home from work. The only person he could think off is Cathy and so he goes to Cathy's room the next day. That is when he finds her diary and reads it.

    Paco discovers though the diary that Cathy "was" attracted to him, but when she saw his scars and disabilities, her opinion of him changes. I dislike the way she writes about him in her diary. Paco then knows that there is nothing there for him in this town.

  3. What are some of the similarities between Vietnam and Boone, Texas? Differences?
    I'm not sure how to answer this so I am going to skip this one. I will be researching more about this, though.

  4. Were you satisfied with the ending? What are your overall impressions of the book?
    I had almost expected the same ending. When you are disabled and return wounded in the war as a veteran, your life almost always does not mean anything anymore. Looking for a job would be extremely difficult. Trying to survive is hardship. I hope what I have read from the websites of the U.S. Army and Veteran Affairs about caring for the veterans are true. I hope they truly care and are not just looking it and sounding good.

    This is a book that I will remember for a long time. I have only read about the heroic stuff and the good side, but not from the wounded soldiers themselves. Well, I have some sort of idea prior to this, but now it is frozen solid in my head. Reading stories like this make me rethink the harsh reality of being a soldier.


    Yes, I am satisfied with the ending. I hope Paco finds what he is looking for. Perhaps he would find someone who would love him for who and what he has become. I hope he stays strong. I wish for the best for him.

From the back cover: Paco Sullivan is the only man in Alpha Company to survive a cataclysmic Vietcong attack on Fire Base Harriette in Vietnam. Everyone else is annihilated. When a medic finally rescues him almost two days later, Paco is waiting to die, flies and maggots covering his burnt, shattered body. He winds up back in the U.S. with his legs full of pins, daily rations of Librium and Valium, and no sense of what to do next. One evening, on the trail of a rainstorm, he limps off a bus and into a small town of Boone, determined to find a real job and a real bed--but no matter how hard he works, nothing muffles the anguish in his mind and body. Brilliantly and vividly written, Paco's Story--winner of a National Book Award--plunges the reader into the violence and casual cruelty of the Vietnam War, and the ghostly aftermath that often dealt the harshest blows.