When I first started this book, I had to put it down for a few days and read something else. The rambling "device" at first put me off as annoying. I warmed to the unusual style, however, on the second try and was amply rewarded. As a Vietnam veteran I can be easily offend with the "loser" image of a returned veteran. But this is misleading. Paco is severely wounded and simply wants to work hard (most likely a penitent) and be left alone. He finds his safe harbor in Ernest, the owner of the Texas Lunch diner, where he washes dishes (washing away his sins, yes yes I get it). Ernest's ramblings about combat on Iwo and Guadalcanal add a great coda and understanding. Heinemann really brings these characters to life, especially the talk about combat and how they feel. The most intriguing character is Jesse, another vagabond Viet vet who stops for dinner. As I am also a former paratrooper, Jesse's rantings and observations are priceless. Pay attention to what Jesse says about the "proposed" Vietnam Memorial. Understand Scruggs's idea came about in March 1979, with Heinemann publishing excerpts of this book starting in 1979 (winning the Book Award in 1987). But Cathy gives us a view of how others see us, no matter how unfair that may be. Cathy at first sees Paco as "cute" then "ugly" as she observes him night after night with his nightmares. What Paco reads in Cathy's diary is what many civilians felt about us deep down and their refusal to help in reintegration. One final unrelated note: one reviewer of this book may be unaware that Caputo served in Vietnam, whereas Clancy never served in the military. Heinemann is the real deal, with characters very real to me and my experiences.
PACO'S STORY is the definitive novel of the Vietnam "conflict" as told from the point of view of a lowly soldier in the thick of the fight. Author Larry Heinemann's use of language is so lyrical that the prose here has a rhythm that is musical. His descriptions are graphic enough that the reader almost can smell the blood, hear the screams, taste the fear. At times, PACO'S STORY is painful to read, but that is a direct consequence of Heinemann's mastery of the topic. This novel deservedly won the National Book Award. PACO'S STORY is as significant report of the Vietnam era as CATCH-22 was of World War II.
The fact that this novel is now out of print is more of a crime than any other moral dilemma the reader of Heinneman's masterpiece will encounter. Ask yourself two questions: what is the crime, and who are the criminals. Warning: your answer may change several times before you close the book. Not for the weak at heart, Paco's Story is a no-holds-barred narrative told in the most haunting of voices. A must read.