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.”
“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.”