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Author Larry Heinemann, National Book Award winner for ‘Paco’s Story, dead at 75

The Chicago native and Vietnam veteran had been living in Texas, where he was a writer-in-residence at Texas A&M University from 2005 until he retired in 2015. 

Author Larry Heinemann at his home in 1992.
Author Larry Heinemann at his home in 1992.
Rich Hein / Sun-Times

Larry Heinemann, who said he grew up in a home without books but produced searing works of literature about the Vietnam War, died Wednesday at 75.

“The war,” he once said, “has been like a nail in my head, like a corpse in my house.”

The Chicago native had been living in Bryan, Texas, near College Station, where he’d been a writer-in-residence at Texas A&M University from 2005 until retiring in 2015, according to relatives. He had cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and died at CHI St. Joseph Health Regional Hospital in Bryan.

The Army veteran’s novel “Paco’s Story” won the National Book Award for fiction in 1987, surprising the literati by besting a field that included Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” and Philip Roth’s “The Counterlife.”

He was shipped in March 1967 to Vietnam, where he survived what he called “the longest night of my life.” His battalion and future Hollywood director Oliver Stone’s were engaged in the same battle with North Vietnamese soldiers.

“We killed 500 guys in one night, and trust me, it took all night,” Mr. Heinemann wrote of that battle in his 2005 nonfiction book “Black Virgin Mountain: A Return to Vietnam.”

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“The s--- flew all night,” Mr. Heinemann wrote of the carnage. As the sun came up, “We could finally look out down front: corpses everywhere, bare feet and flies…”

When it came time to bury the dead, he wrote, “We did it like you’d make lasagna — a layer of bodies and body parts, a generously thick broadcast of quicklime. . . .another layer of bodies, and so on.”

He was born at the old Ravenswood Hospital and spent his early years on the North Side. His family moved to Northbrook, where he graduated from Glenbrook North High School in 1962.

His father owned a small bus company. Young Larry’s favorite childhood memories centered on weekend bus jaunts with his three brothers.

“His mom would pack the four boys up on the bus, and they would go on excursions,” his daughter Sarah Heinemann said. “She would even set up a little stove on the bus.”

All his life, “He just felt Chicago in his bones,” said Edith Heinemann, his former wife. “He saw Chicago as a scrappy, workingman’s town.”

They met when he and other soldiers from Fort Knox wandered into a dance at her Kentucky school. Within months, he’d gotten his orders to go to Vietnam. After he returned to the United States in 1968, they got married and moved to Chicago, where, early on, he was a bus driver for the CTA.

As he drove a bus through the protests of the 1968 Democratic National Convention, “I could see silhouettes under the trees and cops in riot gear,” he said in a 1986 interview with the Chicago Sun-Times. “Then, I smelled the [tear gas], and it made me realize I didn’t want any part of what was going on. So I yanked on the brake, and I told the passengers, ‘I ain’t going anywhere.’ ”

“I couldn’t believe the war had followed me home,” he said in a separate interview.

He enrolled in writing classes at Columbia College Chicago. “I had to tell everybody what I had seen,” he said.

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His first novel, “Close Quarters,” was published in 1977, around the time he began teaching full-time at Columbia.

Before his father died, “He was able to bring the book in to him and read a chapter to him,” which felt good, Edith Heinemann said. “His father’s mantra to him for 10 years was: Get a haircut, and get a job.”

“Paco’s Story” was published in 1987. A New York Times review described its fictional veteran this way: “Paco’s legs are held together by pins and screws and his mind is held together by pain killers and whisky.”

When it surprisingly won the National Book Award, a protest letter appeared in The New York Times, signed by 48 of the nation’s leading African American writers, praising Morrison and lamenting that she had been overlooked.

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Mr. Heinemann taught at the William Joiner Institute for the Study of War and Social Consequences at the University of Massachusetts Boston. And he returned to Vietnam, where he began to discover the country’s beauty. From 2002 to 2003, he was a Fulbright lecturer at Vietnam’s Hue University.

Mr. Heinemann held writing posts and did workshops at universities around the country, including DePaul University, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Northwestern University. In 1992, he published the comic novel “Cooler by the Lake.”

Mr. Heinemann is also survived by his partner Kathy Favor, son Preston and a granddaughter. A memorial service is being planned in Chicago for the summer, his daughter said. He asked that his ashes be scattered over Lake Michigan.