In the back of Stuart Brent’s bookstore on Michigan Avenue, Larry Heinemann stands a few feet from walls that hold framed photographs of celebrated Chicago writers, among them Saul Bellow and Nelson Algren. There’s a move and pull to this room, a certain flow and rhythm that’s really a competition to be heard. Some other writers have come by to pay their respects. At the moment, Cyrus Colter, a tall, distinguished lawyer who didn’t start writing until he was in his 50s, is trading war stories with Heinemann. The savvy, animated Brent is racing around the room, weighing in with his tales of Hemingway.
Heinemann seems confident, relaxed, a man on a long winning streak. He’s inscribing title pages, and every single inscription makes the book’s owner laugh out loud. A man of medium height, with gray-streaked brown hair and fierce, pale blue eyes, Heinemann has set himself apart from other 48-year-old fathers of two by wearing garish red suspenders and a gold loop in his left ear. He wanted to show up in the black tuxedo he bought used to wear to this year’s National Book Awards dinner, but his wife intervened. It’s a family affair. Heinemann’s very aware 14-year-old daughter Sarah, whom the family calls “Mugsy” or “Mugs,” is sitting at a table trying to solve a sheet of math problems. Sarah’s 12-year-old brother Preston, who sports a fashionable ponytail, is helping one of Brent’s employees pour the liquor and Coke. Heinemann and his wife Edie just celebrated their 24th anniversary.
“This has only happened three times in my life. I’m going to celebrate this one,” he is saying. A friend remembers how uncomfortable Heinemann felt when his first novel came out in 1977; he didn’t even want to tour. Now he says, probably only half-joking, “I’d walk to Denver naked to sell a book.”
Clearly a lot is riding on Cooler by the Lake (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $20), Heinemann’s third novel and the first since the profane, edgy Paco’s Story won the National Book Award for fiction in 1987. Heinemann’s first book, Close Quarters (1977), was a fictionalized account of his experiences as a combat infantryman in the 25th Division in Vietnam. Both these novels were dark, grungy, interior monologues that were hard to finish. They were driven by the guilt, fear, and memory in his head.
With his new novel, Heinemann wanted to go completely outside himself. He wanted to write a book that was flat-out funny, a book with no body count, one in which everybody, perversely, gets exactly what they want. These stories, he says, walk by his door every day; why not write them down? He’s lived in Chicago his entire life, except for those two nightmarish years in the Army, so why not write a book about the neighborhood?
Cooler by the Lake is a lyrical, rude, swift satire. Fred Shafer met Heinemann in the early 80s at TriQuarterly, where Shafer was on the staff; now they’re close friends. “What’s true about his new book is the voice and attitude is almost more the Larry we know socially than the side that shows up in the Vietnam novels,” says Shafer. “The wit, the sense of irony, the real pleasure he takes in responding to people, the physical details, that’s the part of Larry I’m used to knowing, the one I’m comfortable with.” Says Heinemann about the book and the public, “I hope they get the gag or I’m fucked.”
The National Book Award brought Heinemann a heady confirmation of his talents and a phenomenal sense of worth, but it didn’t make him rich or famous (he’s never recognized on the street). He says quite plainly that Cooler by the Lake will determine whether he gets to go on living the life he’s been accustomed to since he quit teaching at Columbia College in 1986 to write full-time. The gigs other writers and novelists fall back on for financial security, like teaching and magazine work, he’s tried and doesn’t like.
But whether the new novel soars or flops, friends say Cooler by the Lake is part of his public unveiling. Chicago-born writer Gerald Nicosia moved to California four years ago but he and Heinemann remain close friends. He says, “There’s a new Larry emerging. He’s more relaxed now, and somebody who’s able to look at life with more perspective and laugh about it.”
Heinemann took a long time to write his first two books (nine years for Close Quarters, seven years for Paco’s), but he was able to tear out Cooler in two and a half years, partly because of grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. He didn’t have to worry about the mortgage or his kids’ tuition–he could just write. Heinemann said it was time to get away from Vietnam. “I’ve been talking a blue streak about the war all the time, and I figured after two books that were not particularly fun to write and certainly not all that much fun to read, I thought I would write something that had absolutely nothing to do with Vietnam. Veronica Geng, who’s a humorist, wrote this review of the two books in the New Yorker, saying I was basically a comic writer. There are funny things in both novels, mostly this sort of gross ironies, a lot of black or gallows humor. I said, comic writer, OK, let’s just see if I can’t do it.”
Cooler by the Lake unfolds in the forlorn, working-class neighborhoods around North Ravenswood and Peterson, and concerns Maximilian Nutmeg, a 50-ish scam artist Heinemann describes in his opening sentence as a “mildly incompetent, mostly harmless petty crook, always hustling for money.” With the exception of Max’s devoted wife Muriel, the book is peopled by the absurd and grotesque, such as Belle-Noche, Max’s nymphomaniac sister who has three daughters and one son by four different lovers, “each daughter more remarkably endowed and blindingly ugly than the one before.”
The terse plot details the repercussions when Max finds a wallet belonging to Loretta Spokeshave of Northfield that contains $800, some credit cards, and a hilarious love letter from her billionaire lover with instructions for their next tryst (“Don’t forget to bring the feathers, the blindfold, the choke-chain dog collar, and the baby oil”), and attempts to return her property. Heinemann borrows a stylistic device from Paco’s Story; it’s a Greek chorus commenting on the action, in this case composed of the regulars of the now-closed Deadwood Dave’s Wild West Saloon.
The novel is anthropological in its attention to clothes, cars, and speech patterns and rhythms. It begins with a very funny passage about one of Max’s scams–he’s clutching a gas can and pretending to be a poor, lost suburban soul desperate for the money to get to his brother’s wedding. Like so much of the book, this caper is out of Heinemann’s life.
“A number of years ago, in the early 80s,” he says, “there were a couple of newspaper articles about a guy who was wandering around downtown with a gas can and telling people he was on his way to a wedding in Hammond, Indiana, and his car broke down. One day I was in the South Loop and I bumped into him. The guy goes into this long, hysterical story, going on and on about his brother’s wedding. He’s dressed really goofy, a serious five o’clock shadow at about one o’clock in the afternoon.
“Finally I stopped him. I said, ‘Don’t you know you’re famous? You’ve been in the papers, everybody’s on to you.’ He absolutely denied it. I said go over to the library and look it up. But I gave him a buck, I said this is great theater. What a hard way to make a living, basically doing a monologue to make a buck! He’s not selling IBM computers, he’s not selling real estate, he’s selling this bullshit story, and all he’s going to get out of it is a buck, if he’s good enough. I said, OK, I’ll start with that.
“There isn’t one straight-up person in the whole book. They’re all a little cranky, they’re all cross-eyed, an amalgam of all these odd characters. How bizarre and peculiar can you make these people? That’s one thing I learned from Paco’s Story–just load it up. Let’s make the gag as big as we can so everybody will get it. The gag is, these women are named after flowers and they couldn’t be uglier. The only thing that recommends these women is they fuck like mink and they enjoy it. When Paco’s Story came out I did a very modest book tour and was interviewed by Pat Holt, who was the book editor of the San Francisco Chronicle. We’re talking about the book, and finally she leans over the table and says, ‘You know what disturbs me the most about your books? All the women in your stories like to fuck.’ I thought, what an odd thing to say. I figured, what the hell, this is my book, I can make anybody as horny as I’d like.
“The fact that Muriel loves to be a housewife–that’s going to send some people around the bend. Women aren’t supposed to stay at home and be wife and mother basically to brain-dead adults. Muriel loves Max to distraction, and what better way to express that than to just fuck his brains out! Muriel is just an earth mother, she loves everybody. The book is also a parody of the Disney World, Hollywood television sitcom that says at the end somebody has to get the girl and everybody lives happily ever after.”
The relevant question is whether he’s drawn his characters too broadly. The women, who are all one-dimensional carnal objects, open Heinemann again to old charges that he’s a sexist or, worse, a misogynist. These date back to his Vietnam novels, whose imagery of rape, torture, and murder unnerved a great many readers, both men and women.
A number of Heinemann’s friends and admirers say the reader must disengage Cooler by the Lake’s narrator from Larry’s real voice. “I don’t want to equate him with that narrator, because there’s an edge that’s either not Larry’s personality or is an exaggeration of it,” says Shafer. “I think of Larry as being exuberant. I wouldn’t call his sense of humor vile, he’s not the kind of person who hurts people. It’s not in his range to stab people in the back, to dissect them. He has a piercing understanding of behavior, and he’s someone who’s delighted and shocked by the foibles of human behavior.”
“People are scared to talk about this subject,” says Asa Baber, who writes Playboy’s “Men” column and is one of Heinemann’s best friends. “The reason why I support Larry’s work and particularly the humor of Cooler by the Lake is there’s a brand of male humor that’s been censored that should not have been. I think it’s an honest and sometimes funny book. I’m not going to tiptoe when charges are made that rough male humor is sexist. Larry has some rough humor. A lot of men still love to laugh at sexuality, and they’re not necessarily politically correct.”
Pat Strachan edited Heinemann’s first two novels before leaving Farrar, Straus. She called the notion of sexism or misogyny “ridiculous.” The new work is “a comic novel, and I don’t think the men come off terribly well, either.”
Ellen Levine, Heinemann’s New York literary agent since 1974, is more emphatic. “I didn’t find the book either of those things [sexist or misogynist]. I found it very funny. The book has to be read with a sense of humor. What you’re saying is the first I’ve ever heard spoken about this issue. I think he’s really a feminist. I’ve watched him be very supportive of his wife, in terms of her going back to school and starting a career in this point of her life. He’s very sensitive to women.”
Tom Nawrocki, a teacher at Columbia and a free-lance writer, has been one of Heinemann’s best friends since they met at Columbia College in 1973. “When I assign his novels in my classes, my women students have a very hard time reading him. Larry’s an incredibly honest person–my wife says he’s too honest. Part of it may be Larry’s honesty. He’s getting into writing what many men are saying anyway. I think he’s always had that. He didn’t shy away from that. Because of that honesty, he insisted it be in there.”
“When I originally conceived the characters of Max and Belle-Noche,” says Heinemann, “it seemed to me they weren’t very sympathetic. They were kind of stupid, sort of lazy.” Belle-Noche used to be a stripper. Trying to create the character, Heinemann developed an empathy with her. “The empathy informed the writing. The fact that she had these basically humiliating jobs. I stopped going to burlesque shows when I was in the Army. I was in Fort Knox, and one weekend we went into Louisville and we went into this one place. There was this one black woman who was about five months pregnant on stage performing for some half-drunk kids. I thought, what is it about this work that gets people to humiliate themselves this way? There’s no reason to romanticize people like that.”
Edie Heinemann understands that some women may be upset by what her husband writes, but she insists he’s not insensitive to women and is certainly not chauvinist. She explained why she didn’t want her husband to wear the tuxedo to the signing. “Larry’s gig is to be a bit of a clown, and I was afraid people wouldn’t get the joke. Sometimes I don’t even understand his humor. Larry likes to play that role because he’s so secure in his job, though for someone who doesn’t understand the joke they can fall flat on their face.”
They met at a college dance almost 26 years ago, six months before Heinemann left Fort Knox, Kentucky, for Vietnam. Edie Smith, from Long Island, New York, was doing her undergraduate work at Nazareth College in nearby Bardstown. “He was a clown, very funny and very easygoing,” Edie says. “He told some good stories, about his family, about his grandfather.” Edie Heinemann says everything about her husband, including his complicated relationships with women, his moods, his present sense of humor, and why he became a writer, was forged by Vietnam.
“I don’t think I’ve ever told this to anybody on the record, but I married a completely different man than the one I met. Larry had a warmth, a genuineness, a humor about him, even a naivete that was completely stripped away when he was in Vietnam. When he came home all I saw was the bitterness and the edge and the distance. For so long he held so much of this inside, and I don’t think I ever fully realized how much pivoted on his experiences in Vietnam. Only recently, with the work he’s done, the writing and the other things, has he begun to shed what happened to him, revealing more humor and everything else that was taken away in Vietnam.”
Larry Heinemann was born on January 18, 1944, in the area of Chicago called Germantown, on the near northwest side. He was the second of four sons born to John, a bus driver, and Dorothy, a homemaker. Heinemann says his father was gone most of the time. He worked 14- and 16-hour shifts driving for United Motor Coach (later Nortran). For a short time early in Heinemann’s life he’d owned his own concern, the Deerfield Bus Company, but it went belly up. The family moved to suburban Northbrook when Heinemann was very young. Heinemann remembers Northbrook back then as flat and rural. The house he lived in wasn’t much bigger than the first floor of his current home in Edgewater. He wasn’t a very good student. After he graduated from Glenbrook North High School in 1962, he worked odd jobs. He took some classes at Kendall College, a two-year school in Evanston, and graduated in January 1966. Out of money, Heinemann couldn’t enroll somewhere else and retain his student deferment. In May he was drafted. “Nobody ever told me I could go to Canada,” Heinemann says. Instead, he went to Fort Knox for basic training.
Heinemann landed in Vietnam in March 1967. He was stationed northwest of Saigon at Cu Chi and later at Dau Tieng, which put him–in GI argot–“in the middle of the shit.” He was assigned to the Army’s 25th Infantry Division and made a scout on the armored personnel carriers, riding at the front of what the grunts called “tracks.” In Close Quarters, Heinemann wrote: “The tracks, flat-decked affairs with sharply slanted fronts and armor-shielded machine guns (one 50-caliber and two smaller M-60s), were painted o.d.–olive drab, a dark tallow shade of green–with large dun-colored numerals, faint and scratched but plain.”
In a taped 1988 conversation, Heinemann talked about what he saw in Vietnam. “Grunts in particular were really sold down the river. Any job you had in a rifle company was a shit job, a point man particularly, you had a lot of responsibility. You learned not to trust anybody beyond the rank of staff sergeant or lieutenant. The grunts are always going to get fucked. You can’t trust anybody up through the chain of command. You’re nothing but a piece of meat, they can do with you what they want. They say you are government property.
“I’m bitter–20 years later and I’m bitter. I’m a hell of a lot less pissed off and bitter than I was 20 years ago. Some guys have been able to work through it, and what Glen Gray called ‘being able to animate the guilt.’ I’m sure the war has shortened everybody’s life. I’m sure it took ten years off my life, maybe that’s an exaggeration but I think it shortened my life. I was never wounded. I feel so lucky. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to tell people how lucky I feel about that. They had a hundred fair chances and it was just luck.”
Heinemann doesn’t get off on telling war stories; there’s an even tone in his voice, he’s resigned and contemplative. Heinemann doesn’t remember writing very much before he left. He had no literature background. “The letters I wrote to my wife before we got married were not very interesting. There was nothing in my letters to suggest or indicate what I was going through. Her letters were much more interesting.” Edie corresponded with Heinemann every day he was in Vietnam, and he would write back once a week. “He wrote very little about what was going on. I wanted to know the details, and what was really happening, what was going on with his daily routine, and he would write back, talking about the weather.”
Like virtually everyone else dropped into Vietnam, Heinemann didn’t know a thing about the country’s cultural or political past, its fierce antagonism to occupation and colonial rule. He had boredom and heat to contend with, and he saw blood, death, disfigurement, and the destruction of a once beautiful countryside.
On New Year’s Day, 1968, Heinemann took part in an apocalyptic firefight in the jungle near the Cambodian border. The 272nd Regiment of the North Vietnamese Army descended in waves on Firebase Bert, the forward support base where Heinemann was stationed. Heinemann fired his track’s machine gun relentlessly, past exhaustion, until he could barely stand up. Each side suffered heavy casualties. The fighting went on for more than six hours until the North Vietnamese were driven off by an American air strike. Calling it “the worst night of my life,” Heinemann says that dawn revealed 500 dead Vietnamese soldiers.
Looking back, Heinemann could sense something going down. He had already been in about 15 firefights in his first nine months. “All we ran into were VCs, local guys, and guerrillas, and all of a sudden we start seeing uniforms. Body counts that are dressed in khakis and as well equipped and well maintained as we were. These were North Vietnam regular army troops. There were more of them and more of them, until finally on the night when this big firefight cut loose,” he says. The filmmaker Oliver Stone was in the same division as Heinemann, in another battalion. The firefight inspired the climactic section of Stone’s 1986 film, Platoon.
On January 31, 1968, North Vietnamese regulars and Vietcong commandos launched the Tet offensive. During Heinemann’s last three months in Vietnam, his unit saw combat every day. “I left in March 1968, right in the middle of Tet. Soon after that there were a lot of people in my platoon who were either dead or shot up. I got out just in time. I’ve always felt kind of guilty about that. On the other hand, I didn’t, because I put my year in. Vietnam was a catastrophe. It proved to me that every war changes a culture. Something happened to the entire country throughout the war that was pretty traumatizing. We threw away something that was very precious in ourselves. I know I did personally. I know the country in part squandered its character.”
In April 1968, six weeks after Heinemann returned to the United States, he and Edie were married. America was running out of control, and Heinemann wanted to get away from it all. He despised movements and structures, even informal ones.
“I think one of the big mistakes the antiwar movement made was not welcoming veterans at Travis Air Force Base instead of standing around throwing rocks,” he remembers. “Because veterans were the ones, and this may sound gratuitous, in a way victimized. I was waiting for someone to come to me, and they never did. I don’t know that I would have joined anything. I didn’t even join the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. When I got home, I didn’t want anything to do with anybody.”
During the summers of 1968 to 1971, Heinemann drove a CTA bus. He worked various routes–Sheridan Road, Broadway, Clark Street, Damen Avenue, Western Avenue, and other, shorter routes.
The most sublime vignette in Cooler by the Lake is Max Nutmeg’s terrifying, funny, and heartbreaking tale of his experiences as a bus driver in the late 60s. “I figure, you know, I’m probably not going to get another chance to slip my bus driver stories in anywhere, so I might as well put them in now. I was the worst bus driver that ever lived. I did rip a guy’s door right out of his hand. I sideswiped from front to back, with the whole 40 feet of my bus, a Cadillac DeVille, just popped it open, the way you would with a bag of chips.
“One time I did have a nut get on my bus, the most harmless looking, built-like-a-mailbag-looking kid. People are on the bus just for the breeze, they’d do that a lot, ride the Sheridan Road bus just to be near the lake, it was cheaper than an air conditioner. The cops stood in the door and asked where’s the nut, and two of the biggest fucking gorillas came in and just picked him up, threw him into the back of the paddy wagon, and just beat the shit out of him. I said, I can’t do this anymore. The next summer I went back to reapply, and I had so many accidents the summer before I thought they’re never going to rehire me, but I thought I would give it a try. The pay was $3.95 an hour to start, it was righteous money. I went back and they said, you’re rehired, and I thought, these people are really fucking crazy.
“Then came ’68 and the Democratic Convention, and I thought the war had followed me home. It was either the night of the first police riot or the night after. I was at the corner of Clark and Congress Parkway, a couple of blocks behind the Hilton. There were these blacked-out CTA charter buses chock full of cops dressed to go, riot gear, the whole fucking story. Whatever’s going to happen, I didn’t want anything to do with this because somebody’s going to get their asses kicked and it wasn’t going to be me–the memory of that kind of bloody murder anticipation. No, no, I’ve done this, I don’t want anything to do with this. I’m out of here. Everyone there that summer who was my age or younger understood that there was something happening. The cops had an attitude, it was a bizarre time of my life.”
Edie says that when he came home from Vietnam, Heinemann was like barbwire. He thought everything was falling apart. Writing was the only way he could think of to find some grace and purpose; only telling his stories could give him any ease. Edie worked full-time and paid the bills; Larry enrolled at Columbia College because its open-admissions policy meant he could skip the hassle of transcripts, and signed up for the workshop program developed by John Schultz.
Schultz was named chairman of Columbia’s burgeoning English and writing department in the fall of 1967. He met Heinemann a year later. Heinemann wanted to tell his stories in raw, blunt language. He wanted to create a visceral, unrelenting collection of images about what had happened to him.
“I remember his first oral telling,” Schultz says, “of a couple guys sitting outside a bunker with their duffel bags beside them and they’re smoking a joint. They’re short-timers. They hear some incoming mortar and they dive under the bunker, and the incoming hits and explodes. When they come up and see what happens to the bags, they fall down laughing. The telling was vivid; he had the ability to relate what he was imagining and telling and take that into writing and merge his speaking voice with his writing. He had a fairly good intensity of inward concentration.”
The workshop structure, with its immediate feedback and interaction with the other students and the teachers, suited Heinemann’s needs. “He had that peculiar look in his eye,” Schultz says. “I think often he was listening more to what was going on inside himself than listening to other people. He seemed very responsive. He was emotionally supportive, if not directly, inside the class. He began to get intensely involved with what he was saying. The first step–Larry had to develop the confidence it was good stuff and take the risk of bringing out the more complicated material.”
Heinemann’s first stories were published in the in-house collections Don’t You Know There’s a War On? (1969), It Never Stopped Raining (1970), and The Story Workshop Reader (1971), and in the Hyde Parker community newspaper.
He was now wrestling with the structure of Close Quarters. Schultz says the breakthrough came when Heinemann began taking on darker-themed material, detailing atrocities. He went on this way even though by the early 70s the other students had become openly hostile to the Vietnam writers in the class. “He had a very hard time. There was a strong negative feeling and there were a lot of things that were emotionally very difficult for him and the audience,” Schultz says.
“I remember clearly having the out-front purpose of validating the experience for myself,” says Heinemann. “I used to feel nervous the novel was a fictionalized autobiography, though not anymore. Dosier’s tour was much more interesting and dramatic than mine. I wanted to get into the craft. A lot of first novels never amount to anything, but when I get it done I can say I wrote a book about what I saw, what I did, and what I became. The book wasn’t cathartic, I abandoned it many times. I said, I can’t put myself through it anymore. After a while the stuff just gets to you because the war is going on in your head all the time. I just wanted to recall as much of the war as I could. There was a time when I could recall every breath–it was that vivid and that immediate. I think fiction writers rather than looking for some documentary proof are really trying to find the emotional truth of an event, and try and connect it with something much larger. I was so brain-dead when I got back I just wanted to get a nice quiet job, go to school and not fuck with anybody and just get on with it, and that just wasn’t possible.”
Heinemann’s writing methods were slow, painstaking, even torturous. Edie Heinemann says, “All the arguments we had involved space and time. He would write everything in his head, and it took so long. I couldn’t walk through the house because Larry’s writing took over everything, and he couldn’t stand to have me around when he was writing. Through it all, though, I had incredible belief in his writing, and the way it sounded, it was something. For ten years his responsibilities were in that direction, to make it as good as possible.” Edie used to retype her husband’s manuscripts and clean up the text.
In 1973 Heinemann adapted a portion of Close Quarters into a one-act play that was performed at the Body Politic, on a program with a one-act that Schultz had written. When a chapter was published by Penthouse in 1974, he solicited the literary agent Ellen Levine. “I’d seen the piece that Penthouse was going to publish, and then he sent me the whole book and I just sort of raved about it. I asked him if he would consider doing certain work, and then he did. Our correspondence was very enthusiastic. I always thought he had an original voice and I could find a home for him,” Levine says.
By now Heinemann had graduated from Columbia and gone to work for Schultz part-time, teaching one course a semester, all the while refining his novel. He sent a rough manuscript of nearly 180 pages to Levine, who interested Farrar, Straus and Giroux. The house agreed to publish the work if Heinemann would do certain things to improve the narrative.
“Drama and narrative have never been particularly easy for Larry,” Schultz says. “His great strength was imagery and the voice, from which everything is built. The critiques I was giving him through the completion were geared toward development of story, development of characters, dramatic scenes, and narrative structure.”
In a three-day, three-night marathon of rewriting, Heinemann and Schultz shaped and fine-tuned the manuscript. Heinemann dedicated the book to his father, who died the week the book came out in 1977, and to Emerson Cole, a member of Heinemann’s platoon who was killed soon after Heinemann came home. He gave Schultz a copy inscribed: “John, here is the story, the work at long last. In these last, almost nine years now, you have given me something few men give another man. This book, given as a gift, is a slight token of my heartfelt thanks.”
David Halberstam wrote that Vietnam was a war in which journalists made reputations and generals lost them. Now was the time for the novelists to get their word in. Close Quarters was a brutal novel that graphically described combat, political executions, and war as a substitute for sexual release in a slangy, highly colloquial voice that Schultz calls a “mixed diction of vernacular and high literary style,” in the vein of Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi. “The best book by anyone who fought in the Vietnam War,” wrote C.D.B. Bryan (Friendly Fire).
But Heinemann remained edgy, on guard, even frustrated, because he didn’t think his work got the respect it deserved. “When the book came out,” Tom Nawrocki remembers, “it was reviewed in Newsweek the same week as Philip Caputo’s A Rumor of War, and it immediately set up a comparison that wasn’t fair. Caputo’s book wasn’t a novel, it was a memoir of what happened to him in Vietnam. A lot of people considered it a more dramatic book, especially here in Chicago because Caputo was working for the Tribune, and he got more press. Larry’s book got slighted.”
By 1977, Nawrocki had known Heinemann a few years. “He still had these riveting eyes, they would lock onto you and you were struck by that, by his gaze. He believed the war was really wrong, and nobody was really saying that. Veterans didn’t say much about that, nobody wanted to hear it. I never mentioned I was a veteran unless it came up, and I wasn’t the only one. Larry was the first veteran I ever met who said America was wrong to be there. He’s never changed that and I really admire him. I’ve heard him say, when he’s talking to groups, if you talk about the war truthfully then maybe people will get a clear picture of it and maybe that’s how war will finally end.”
Fred Shafer wonders “what he was like then, when he was developing as a writer and writing the first novel. He was drawing on deep places within himself for those books. He’s a guy who’s been through a lot of stress and trauma in the aftermath of the war. I’ve never found that to show in him socially, or the times we talked about politics or writing. Even though there might have been things he was struggling with inside himself, he’s always been good-natured and been able to take a pretty broad perspective on issues.”
Asa Baber says his friendship with Heinemann pivots on rivalry and good-natured swagger. “I love to kid Larry about what I call his false stammer. When he gets up in front of a group, Larry will frequently start to mumble and stutter. The reason he does this is to appear humble, as if he can’t find the words. It’s all an act. I think at times he will affect, he will put on a swagger. He will be in your face, but it’s all a pose.”
Gerry Nicosia says Heinemann “seemed like somebody who’d been through some very wild experiences and was just sort of walking the edge. He had himself under control, but there was a sense there was a lot going on inside this guy. When he would read his work, discuss his life or his family, there was this intensity about everything. He was really interested in figuring out life, he was engaged by everything. In fact I would say he was on fire.”
“There was a time Larry observed my class,” Nawrocki says. “He was senior to me, and it was routine he would talk to the person after the observation. It was a beginning fiction class, I guess I was pretty nervous, he started talking to me after class, it went on for three or four hours. He was living in an apartment, he invited me over. I always remember it was Veterans Day, I went over about nine in the morning, and he basically told me what was wrong with me until about three in the afternoon and some of it got pretty personal.
“I really admired his writing, and I was mortified. The thing that kept me from being devastated–in some ways he was talking about himself, and I could see how unhappy he was with himself. When Larry was down or depressed, he would withdraw. You wouldn’t hear from him for a month. Some anniversaries are very difficult for him. I know the fact it was Veterans Day had a lot to do with the way he acted.”
In the late 70s Heinemann’s life changed. His first child was born. He began teaching full-time. And he began his second novel. He didn’t have a name for his lead character; he called him “the Gimp.” His theme was the emotional aftermath of the war. The celebrated opening chapter, “The First Clean Fact,” originated as an assignment from Schultz in an advanced fiction class Heinemann was taking and was his response to people at the college who said they were tired of war stories. TriQuarterly published it in 1979. Harper’s magazine published two early chapters, “Good Morning to You, Lieutenant” in 1980 and “God’s Marvelous Plan” in ’81. “Good Morning” was the rape chapter and it took Heinemann six months to write. “The rape chapter was hard, 40 guys fuck this woman to death and blow her brains out. You try walking around for six months with that in your head.”
In 1982 Heinemann began an 18-month sabbatical from Columbia. He’d begun to feel oppressed and taken advantage of, underpaid and overworked. He needed to get away from the bureaucracy and just write. Heinemann wrote more than 100 new pages, but when his editor, Pat Strachan, told him it wasn’t coalescing with the earlier material, Heinemann got rid of it. He returned to Columbia in 1984 and his relationship with Schultz deteriorated rapidly. By 1985 the two weren’t speaking. In 1986 Heinemann left the college for good.
“Larry was very unhappy at Columbia, it was very difficult,” says Edie Heinemann. “They weren’t giving him a lot of respect, and Larry wanted to please them. It was a terrible ordeal, I didn’t understand the depths of the feelings he showed. I was nervous, though I supported him, I thought it was important for Larry to go for it and see what happens.”
Heinemann is much more blunt. “When I left Columbia, it was the smartest career move I ever made. It was the most liberating act of my life. They think story workshop is the be-all and end-all. Anybody in the department looking like they might get something done, they took it in the neck. Anybody who had a success that was independent of story workshop got the shaft. The things they did to people were inexcusable. You don’t treat people like that. At one time it was a good idea, and they rammed it into the ground. If I were still at Columbia, Paco’s Story would still be in the drawer, I’d be down there 90 hours a week, and I’d be divorced.”
“My policy on this has been a kind of no comment, I’m finally determined to take the high road,” Schultz says. One of Heinemann’s friends suggested he left because Schultz was demanding to supervise the rewriting of Paco’s Story. “Just the opposite,” says Schultz. “I was no longer giving him the intense manuscript criticism he thought I should. I was trying to disengage myself from this very intense mentor relationship. [Heinemann’s departure] was an act of liberation for me, too. I thought we were encouraging and supportive for 17 years, myself.”
Scheduling conflicts caused by the revamping of the English and writing department aggravated the situation. “It was very demanding, as if on a ship that was being overloaded,” says Schultz. “I don’t think Larry ever realized how oppressed I was by the situation. He wasn’t wholly insightful to what was going on on the other side. In our very different and conflicting ways, we may have shared a certain feeling.”
Heinemann worked on Paco’s Story for nearly seven years, playing with the difficult, even daring narrative device called “James,” the collective voice of the dead soldiers of Alpha Company, killed during a massive Vietcong assault on Fire Base Harriette. As the only survivor of the attack, the heavily medicated Paco Sullivan, his body broken, undergoes a surreal odyssey through a grotesque landscape, ending up in Boone, Texas, where he takes a job as a dishwasher. (“I wash and God dries,” he says). He’s drawn into a vortex of flashbacks, fantasies, and hallucinations about his experiences “in country,” specifically the rape, torture, and execution of a Vietcong prisoner.
“The real trouble I had with the book was the ending. I rewrote it four times,” Heinemann says. “It was particularly troublesome because it just didn’t end right, the story didn’t land on its feet. So I rewrote it three times, and my editor, Pat Strachan, she said it just wasn’t working. I just threw it out and wrote an entire different piece, just boom. The last chapter came from the moon. It was the inspiration of deadline, and I just happened to get lucky.”
Published in November 1986, Paco’s Story articulated the pain of an invisible man struggling to be heard. The novel and Stone’s film Platoon, released a month later, were historical correctives to the revisionism of Rambo and the prowar novels of James Webb, who fought in Vietnam and was later named secretary of the Navy. Critic Richard Eder wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “The horror Heinemann wants to rescue from oblivion is expressed in the notion that it is not the death that amputates the victim from the survivor, but life that has amputated the survivor from the company of the dead.” Nicosia wrote in the Chicago Tribune, “Heinemann exposes the primary fallacy of war, which comes from the notion that one can inflict pain without having pain inflicted upon one in return.” The poet and editor Reginald Gibbons wrote in TriQuarterly, “He outdoes Conrad in honesty, partly by facing racism squarely instead of masking it with false ideas–the wretchedness and waste of the deaths of Paco’s battlemates have cut through our moral certainties, leaving us almost too wobbly to focus our consciences on the horror those soldiers themselves created when they were alive.”
Not all the reviews were so enthusiastic. “Heinemann is an undisciplined writer with a fine ear and eye,” Duncan Spencer wrote in the Washington Post. The New York Times had so far failed to review the novel. Fred Shafer says, “I remember Larry wondering whether the book was going to go. When it wasn’t reviewed by the Times, he was quite concerned. I think for a while, he thought the book was going to go down. It was a pretty rough period.”
The Times finally reviewed Paco’s Story on November 8, 1987, the day before Heinemann walked off with the National Book Award, beating out Philip Roth (The Counterlife) and Toni Morrison (Beloved), among others. Christopher Benfey’s positive review (“a fine novel” with “an eerie and unsettling force”) was buried inside the Sunday Book Review. Heinemann’s acceptance speech, in which he criticized historians and politicians who said the war could have been won with a more aggressive military campaign–“if we had filled our minds with a little more hate”–was brief, eloquent, and haunting. Says Asa Baber, “I would say Larry got a tremendous boost internally with the National Book Award, that the recognition was deserved and it gave him the sense he was creditable as a writer.”
The day after Heinemann got the NBA, Oliver Stone sent him a telegram that said “Watch out.” Sure enough. The New York Times, which had slighted Heinemann’s work to begin with, now questioned the intelligence of the jurors and demanded reforms in the judging process. In “Did Paco’s Story Deserve Its Award?,” one of two columns by critic Michiko Kakutani on the NBA, she wrote, “Though it’s a well-crafted, often admirable novel, it never succeeds . . . in enveloping the reader in the hallucinatory atmosphere of the war, or forcing us to examine the complicated ways in which the war relates to everyday human frailties and needs. Mr. Heinemann’s writing is insufficiently powerful, his vision too myopic, to effectively turn [Paco] into the story of a mythic Lazarus-like figure that might otherwise engage our passions.”
A couple of months later, John Melmoth wrote in the Times Literary Supplement of London that the novel “lacks . . . impact because, back in the world, Heinemann is no longer content to tell it as it is but casts around for explanations.”
And in the New York Review of Books, Robert Towers weighed in. “In that it tries, in somewhat blatant fashion, to exploit the reader’s most accessible and predictable responses of revulsion, pity, and guilt, Paco’s Story is, I think, essentially a sentimental novel. That it should have been chosen as the best novel of the year suggests that the judges, for whatever reasons, made a sentimental decision of their own.”
To at least one other veteran, Paco’s Story was much finer than that. “Larry’s writing has always been some of the most honest literature about the war,” says Ron Kovic. “He’s never been afraid to go into the depths of what he saw and experienced. The words really reverberate in our minds, and he’s always insisted on telling the truth. The day Larry won that award was a victory for all of us.”
Heinemann had his award–a $10,000 prize and a Louise Nevelson sculpture. “I anticipate to be writing for another 20 or 30 years,” Heinemann says, “and to have that kind of recognition that the book award gives you, you can’t miss it. That’s going to help me do other strong books. Working on Paco’s and having finished it, I knew I had worked on a good book. I read enough of it in manuscript and at readings, and enough people in New York had seen it and they recognized it as a good book.
“I think it’s more important to keep working than to expect you’re going to write a great work of art every time you sit down. It’s not going to happen that way. I don’t know that I could have gotten at a story with the kind of passion and intensity with which Paco’s was written, because I felt tremendously committed to the story. I’m strongly affected by the war. I think a lot of things in my life and in my heart came together very strongly in that book. I don’t know that you can duplicate that. I don’t know you’re supposed to. That doesn’t take away anything from the book award. I regard myself as a journeyman writer. I’ve had good luck before. Some of that luck I’ve really worked for, some of the luck I’ve had fall into my lap.”
The National Book Award opened up new opportunities, and Heinemann took full advantage. In 1987 he traveled with Harrison Salisbury and seven other writers to China for two weeks. In December 1988 he was part of a delegation of 30 Americans, most of them Vietnam veterans, who traveled to the Soviet Union and met the Afghantsi, the veterans of the Afghani war. Heinemann discovered striking parallels between these men and Vietnam veterans, such as their nightmares, alcoholism, violent behavior, and inability to hold a job.
Heinemann got drunk with his new friends on vodka “so ice-cold it poured like liqueur,” he says. “It was clear these guys were traumatized by the war. They did the same thing I did, riding armored personnel carriers. These kids were young enough to be my sons. They want Americans to like them so much. They’re like south-side steel workers, with handshakes like vise grips. They all have songs, music is really the way they look at things. I can’t remember what I said, I told them how bitter I was. I told them, write about the bitterness. This one guy asked me what I hoped for and I said I wanted to outlive Richard Nixon.”
The Soviet veteran asked why.
“So I can piss on his motherfucking grave,” Heinemann said.
In the July 1989 Playboy Heinemann wrote about this trip. He ended the piece: “Any soldier returning home must rediscover his humanity and establish a livable peace with the discovered, liberated, permanently dark places in his own heart–the darkness that is always with us.”
Heinemann doesn’t want to put himself in a straitjacket. He doesn’t want to be typed. “Both Phil Caputo and Tim O’Brien talk about how they’re labeled as Vietnam writers, and both have struggled dearly to get away. This is a big concern–to be stuck inside a subject matter for your entire professional life is nuts.”
In 1985 Heinemann began work on a nonfiction book about posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). “It’s a book really about the long-term effects of the war, how some people have been able to find a livable peace concerning the war. It’s a matter of settling in your mind. It’s also about the guys who got stuck. It really depends on the intensity of the trauma, though my contention is PTSD is irresistible and irremediable. If you were an infantryman, you’re going to exhibit symptoms of PTSD to greater or lesser degrees. What that means, combat veterans have permanently elevated heart rates, high blood pressure, more gastrointestinal ailments. They’re more prone to depression, hypervigilance, alcohol and drug abuse, and three or four other things I can’t think of. These things will diminish, like sleeplessness or nightmares, but they’ll never go away. It’s a permanent condition of your life. The only symptoms I don’t have are alcohol and drug abuse. This matter of depression, you get depressed, this matter of anniversaries. Every Christmas and every New Year’s since 1967 have not been fun. My birthday is not fun. I stopped dreaming Vietnam dreams a long time ago, I think it’s because of my writing, all the imaginative qualities of my writing.”
Heinemann was never very religious to start with, and his faith disintegrated in Vietnam. “I really got pissed off once and for all at the chaplains. They say you can tell them anything, they’re priests, they’re supposed to keep it to themselves. Chaplains are all officers, they’re part of the hierarchy. You don’t call them father, you call them sir. When I was in Vietnam, I never heard chaplains do anything except cheerlead. At a couple of memorial services, the chaplain got up and started giving this speech about we have to go out and kill more gooks and avenge these deaths, and I’m like, ‘Fuck you!'”
What really angers Heinemann are the phony tough, such as Tribune writer Bob Greene, who wrote some columns in the late 80s expressing his regret at not having gone to Vietnam. “I don’t think Greene understood the dynamics of the war. I’ve always told people if I could trade my two novels for more than 20 years of grief, I would do that. That’s how strongly I feel. I’ve been told by magazine editors that they felt that not going to Vietnam was the missed literary experience of their lives, and it’s all you can do to keep from laughing in their faces. I think Bob Greene was being naive, and these other guys who think it’s the ‘making of the man,’ and it’s not true. Let me tell you something, the killing part’s easy, easier than you think. And for this culture to think the only way to be a man is to be a soldier is insane.”
In 1985, when Heinemann got serious about the nonfiction book, he started going out to the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state, interviewing veterans and participating in sweat lodges. “I started doing sweat lodges with this Indian medicine man. I discovered a spirituality I surprised myself with. I’m a city kid and this guy is a preacher in the Native American church. They’re plugged into the Native American spirituality. A sweat lodge is like a religious ceremony, it’s like a mass. It can be adapted to a lot of things, you have a fast, you’re going to have a vision, and you’re going to meet the great spirit. The difference between the sweat lodge and a mass, where this magic occurs, is in the sweat lodge, everybody is part of the process and becomes a witness. It’s about the size of a Volkswagen, so if you get a dozen people in there you’re ass to ass. It’s very physical, because you’ve got five gallons of steam and hot fucking rocks. I was prepared to go in there and observe, and I got tricked.”
Heinemann’s friends say this period made him more mature, relaxed, and enlightened. “The real change with Larry came with his first or second trip out to the Olympic Peninsula,” says Nawrocki. “I always remember that, because he said something wonderful happened. He was more relaxed, the tension that seemed to be about him was lessened.” Fred Shafer and his wife spent some time with Larry and Edie on the peninsula, and he noticed the difference immediately. Shafer thinks Heinemann “is more at peace with himself. We’ve been at a lot of settings and I’ve never seen him down. What always fascinates me is how his work is brought to such a strong finish, and yet he’s not a theorist about writing. He never sits around and talks about theory or the technique of writing. He has such a hold on these issues by way of intuition, and because he understands writing serves a way of getting deep inside himself. Technique becomes a means of bringing out what he’s found there.
“I don’t think the deep or dark side is gone. I think what this [new] novel shows is he’s found a way to incorporate and make us see another side of himself. My hope would be he’s able to work in all areas of his personality and mine them for further insights and play them for a wider range. He’s a guy who’s been through a lot of trauma and stress in the aftermath of the war. He’s even stronger for what happened to him. It was a bold move to break from Vietnam material, but I think it will enable him to keep finding out things. I don’t see how the other Larry could be entirely gone though.”
Asa Baber was a marine in the late 50s and early 60s. His friendship with Heinemann involves certain rituals, such as calling each other every year on Memorial Day and Armistice Day. He’s witnessed Heinemann’s darker moments. “I see him as still basically perverted and insecure; it’s one of the reasons I love him. Larry has all the insecurities of the writer. I would say there have been times in his life when he was struggling with that. That’s the kind of darkness I’m talking about, the mental depression of having been through too much and not being able to cope with it all the time. But he’s a man with enormous courage, and I think essentially he’s kept on trucking, which is the job of the writer.”
In May 1990 Heinemann returned to Vietnam with the authors and veterans Philip Caputo, Yusef Komunyakaa, W.D. Ehrhart, Larry Rottman, and Bruce Weigl, and journalist George Wilson, who was a Vietnam correspondent. They traveled the countryside and met with Vietnamese intellectuals, writers, and artists. Heinemann also talked with government officials (including the former North Vietnamese commander, General Vo Nguyen Giap). He cannot get Vietnam out of his mind. “For me the Vietnam war has been a nail in my head, a corpse in my house,” he wrote about this trip in the July 1991 Harper’s.
Last May he and Edie and Larry Rottman went back for three weeks, traveling by train from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). He and Rottman are planning a travelogue about their experiences. There are other projects he wants to pursue.
When Heinemann completes the PTSD book and the travelogue, he wants to write a family novel. “My dad died the week Close Quarters was published. My mother is now in a nursing home.” His older brother James walked out on a wife and child in 1970 and hasn’t been heard from since. His younger brother Philip vanished in 1982. Philip Heinemann served two tours with the Marines in Vietnam. “When he got out, we didn’t talk for about ten years. I thought the war was a big fucking mistake, I still do. He thought any time your government asks you to jump in a lake, that’s what you do, so we don’t agree on much. He got married, had two kids, they got divorced, he lost his job, he couldn’t keep up with the alimony and child support, so he just disappeared. That’s one of the things I want to talk about in the family novel, not necessarily my brothers but about what happens when somebody in your life disappears, somebody you’ve known your whole life.
“I really regret that my dad died before he and I could talk. I didn’t know until the last year of his life when he was in college he wanted to be a writer, he wanted to be a journalist. All the time I was working on Close Quarters he was saying, ‘Why don’t you get a job and support your wife?’ I said, ‘Dad, I’m doing something, I’m writing this book.’ He didn’t have any confidence,” Heinemann says.
His other brother Richard lives in Grayslake with his wife and family.
Larry Heinemann intends to remain a Chicago writer. “I understand Saul Bellow said the reason he lived in Chicago was because people leave you alone and let you work. I live in a street of ordinary working people. I would hate to think in order to be a writer in Chicago I had to perform. I think if you’re Tom Wolfe you’re on all the time. The only people who are supposed to recognize you on the streets are your neighbors. I have confidence in my work. People outside WGN’s broadcast perimeter will want to read my stuff. For a long time I was known as a Vietnam veteran who writes. Now I want to be seen as a writer on my own authority. I’m not a writer because of the war. I’m a writer because I’m a storyteller.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Loren Santow.