Larry Heinemann

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Larry Heinemann
BornLarry Curtis Heinemann
(1944-01-18)January 18, 1944
Chicago, Illinois, US
DiedDecember 11, 2019(2019-12-11) (aged 75)
Bryan, Texas, U.S.
OccupationNovelist, memoirist
SubjectVietnam War
Notable awardsNational Book Award

Larry Curtis Heinemann (January 18, 1944 – December 11, 2019) was an American novelist born and raised in Chicago. His published work – three novels and a memoir – is primarily concerned with the Vietnam War.


Heinemann served a combat tour as a conscripted draftee in the Vietnam War from 1967 to 1968 with the 25th Infantry Division, and described himself as the most ordinary of soldiers.

He received a B.A. from Columbia College, Chicago in 1971, taught creative writing there for fifteen years, and meanwhile wrote his own first and second novels. In 1986 he resigned over a furious argument about nepotism and academic freedom.[1] Paco's Story was published later that year.

Afterward Heinemann received literature fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, and a Fulbright Scholarship to research Vietnamese folklore, legends, and mythology at Huế University. He also taught on the faculty of the University of Southern California in the Masters of Professional Writing Program. He worked as Texas A&M University's Writer in Residence until his retirement in 2015. He died December 11, 2019, of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease in Bryan, Texas.[2]


Heinemann's prose style is blunt and straightforward, reflecting his working-class background.[1] He drew most directly on his Vietnam experience in his first novel Close Quarters which was published in 1977.

His second and critically most acclaimed novel is Paco's Story, which won the 1987 U.S. National Book Award for Fiction[3] in a major surprise that has remained controversial.[4][5][6][7] Other critics and essayists thought the award appropriate and well deserved.[citation needed] At the time, Heinemann's only comment on the controversy was that the check for $10,000 was already cashed and the Louise Nevelson sculpture was not likely to be returned.

Paco's Story relates the postwar experiences of its protagonist, haunted by the ghosts of his dead comrades who provide the novel's distinctive narrative voice. (Ghost stories are common in both American and Vietnamese literature about the war.) The story deals with the seemingly contradictory and morally ambiguous role of the soldier as both victimizer and victim. The Women's Publishing House, Nha Xuat Phu Nu of Hanoi, published Paco's Story in December 2010, translated by Pham Anh Tuan, with an introduction by celebrated Vietnamese novelist Bao Ninh. It is the first American-written war novel published in Vietnam.

His third novel, Cooler by the Lake (1992), is a comic story about Chicago. A petty thief gets into awful trouble when he attempts to return to its owner a wallet with eight $100 bills in it. Thematically lighter than his first novels, it was less positively received.

Heinemann's military experiences are documented in his book, Black Virgin Mountain (2005), a memoir. It chronicles his several returns to Vietnam and his personal and political views concerning the country and the war. He often referred to his two war novels and the memoir as an accidental trilogy.

Heinemann's short stories and non-fiction have appeared in Atlantic Monthly, GRAPHIS, Harper's, Penthouse, Playboy, and Tri-Quarterly magazines, as well as Van Nghe, the Vietnam Writers Association Journal of Arts and Letters in Ha Noi, and numerous anthologies including The Other Side of Heaven, Writing Between the Lines, Vietnam Anthology, Best of the Tri-Quarterly, Lesebuch der wilden Männer, The Vintage Book of War Stories, Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace (edited by Maxine Hong Kingston), and most recently in Humor Me, edited by Ian Frazier.

His work has been translated into Dutch, German, French, Spanish, and Vietnamese.


  1. ^ a b "Larry Heinemann in Conversation With Kurt Jacobsen" Archived 2012-02-05 at the Wayback Machine. Logos: A Journal of Modern Society and Culture 2.1 (Winter 2003). Logosonline. Retrieved 2009-10-09.
  2. ^ "Writer Larry Heinemann dies in Bryan at 75".
  3. ^ "National Book Awards – 1987". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-03-26.
    (With essays by Patricia Smith and Harold Augenbraum from the Awards 60-year anniversary blog.)
  4. ^ "An Upset at the Book Awards", Edwin McDowell, The New York Times, November 10, 1987, page C13.
    • "In a stunning literary upset ..."
  5. ^ "Book Awards Are Pondered", Edwin McDowell, The New York Times, November 12, 1987, page C27.
    • "Although the literary and publishing communities have had two days to recover ... they continue to express astonishment that the novel by Larry Heinemann beat the widely celebrated and praised novels by Toni Morrison and Philip Roth.
    "'Everybody and their brother thought Toni Morrison was going to win it,' said Gerald Howard, executive editor of Penguin, which published the paperback edition of Paco's Story just this week."
  6. ^ "Did 'Paco's Story' Deserve Its Award?", Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times, November 16, 1987, page C15.
    • "What happened? ... Members of the literary community had widely regarded Toni Morrison's novel Beloved as a virtual shoo-in for the prize (with The Counterlife by Philip Roth also a strong contender) and the announcement last Monday ... was greeted with expressions of surprise and astonishment."
  7. ^ Menand, Louis. "All That Glitters: Literature’s global economy" (review of The Economy of Prestige by James English), The New Yorker, December 26, 2005/January 2, 2006. Retrieved 2006-12-11.

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