CHICAGO — A funny thing happened to writer Larry Heinemann at the 1987 National Book Awards ceremony. His book, "Paco's Story," won.
It was as much a surprise to the 44-year-old Chicago writer as it was to New York's publishing Establishment. But Heinemann adjusted to it a good deal more quickly.
When the announcement for the fiction award winner was made, the president of his publishing house, Farrar Straus & Giroux, "grabbed me by the arm and said, 'Get up, get up, it's you.' There couldn't have been 20 people in the whole place that knew who I was," Heinemann recalled.
Obligingly, in an ill-fitting tuxedo rented for $55 the day before, a dazed Larry Heinemann got up and accepted the award.
"There is a prevailing opinion that the U.S. could have won in Vietnam," the Vietnam veteran and novelist cautioned his well-dressed audience. "I don't know where this idea comes from. It certainly didn't come from any Bravo (Heinemann's company) grunt I ever knew. That's saying we didn't fill our hearts with enough hate. . . . If we allow the same thing to happen in Central America, it will be the shame of our lives."
The publishing world was shocked. Heinemann's win for "Paco's Story," the haunting story of the sole survivor of a fire base massacre in Vietnam, came out of literature's left field. The conventional wisdom was that Toni Morrison would win for "Beloved," her critically hailed novel. If by chance "Beloved" fell short, the award was supposedly destined to go to one-time National Book Award winner Philip Roth for "The Counterlife."
In the four months that followed Heinemann's victory--almost until Toni Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction a month ago--the National Book Award was the subject of a literary storm. Forty-eight black writers and critics published a formal protest statement in the New York Times Book Review, saying that due to "oversight and whimsy" Toni Morrison had never won a National Book Award or Pulitzer.
The New York Times, whose Book Review reviewed "Paco's Story" only a day before the NBA awards dinner, advanced less than flattering theories about why the jury chose the "unlikely" "Paco's Story" and why the decision was in error.
While it is hardly unusual for a literary award to be debated, "it is unique for the winner to be so searchingly re-examined by the New York Times as if he were guilty of a crime," said Richard Eder, a juror for the 1987 NBA and Los Angeles Times book critic.
By telephone, Barbara Prete, executive director of the National Book Awards, said she had taken the New York daily to task for treating "Paco's Story" and Heinemann "unfairly."
A Gleeful Warning
In its April "nice issue," Spy magazine advised the newspaper to "be nice to Larry." Spy gleefully pointed to a publishing industry newsletter that admonished the New York Times for its treatment of Heinemann, "but unfortunately made the mistake of referring to the prize-winning "Paco's Story" as "Poco's Story" not once but four times."
Back at home in Chicago after three weeks in China for a writers' conference, Heinemann is taking it all in stride. Indeed, the writer with two well-reviewed war novels to his credit has taken to smoking cigars to celebrate his win. "I was so happy that nothing could penetrate the good feeling that I had. I was high as a kite for a month."
Little wonder. For a writer, the National Book Award is one of the nation's top prizes. Literary giants like Roth, John Updike and Bernard Malamud credit it as having launched their careers. And, in addition to the Louise Nevelson sculpture and $10,000 honorarium that go to the winner, it can mean a lot of money in increased book sales.
"It was real clear to me going into the NBA that it wasn't my ballpark," Heinemann said. "But they can squawk all they want to. I ain't giving back the Nevelson and the $10,000 check has been cashed."
Far from New York's literary swirl, Heinemann said he never planned to be a writer. He grew up in a home where books were nonexistent and where learning was assigned no value. His father, a bus driver for 30 years, was a product of the Depression. The important thing was that you had a steady job.
Had he not been drafted into the Army and shipped off to Vietnam in 1966, Larry Heinemann surmises that he, too, would probably be driving a bus instead of writing fiction.
Began With the Story
"I came to writing with a story rather than the other way around. I had never been a very successful student. My literature education was eclectic, sloppy. I read every war novel I could get my hands on. I had to teach myself spelling and punctuation and all the rhetorical technicalities."
But what he had after two years as a "grunt" in Vietnam was a story worth telling. And the telling, he insists, preserved his sanity.