Larry Heinemann, a Vietnam veteran, has written two stunning novels about Vietnam: ``Close Quarters'' (1977) and ``Paco's Story'' (1986).
His most recent book, ``Cooler by the Lake'' (1992), totally departed from the war genre and was, basically, a total flop.
However, this didn't deter the ebullient Heinemann at all from reading passages of ``Cooler'' to an audience at UC Davis on Thursday night.
Since the novel's comic action takes place in Chicago, Heinemann's hometown, he had to explain the gags in the book to the West Coast audience, including the six chapter headings. Chapter Three, for instance, is titled ``Ubi Est Mea?'' That's Chicago columnist Mike Royko's version of a motto for the city meaning ``Where's Mine?''
Heinemann, 51, (master of the parenthetical aside), chuckled his way through his reading Thursday, and didn't seem to mind at all that he had to explain his jokes to a largely deadpan audience.
``This is the funniest book I ever read,'' said the author. ``And it disappeared quicker than anything (upon publication).''
Heinemann said the book was on the best-seller list in Chicago for one week based on 500 sales from a publication party.
``Then it was gone,'' he said. ``But it was great fun to work on.''
Heinemann said he wrote ``Cooler'' because he was tired of writing about Vietnam.
``I wanted to get the war out of my house,'' he said. ``The war has been like a corpse, a presence, a monster. ... I'd love to have it gone.''
But it was the war that started his writing career.
``I didn't start out to be a writer,'' he said. ``I grew up in a house with no books. My father drove a bus. My three brothers and I were supposed to go out and get jobs.''
Heinemann served in Vietnam in 1967-68. When he got out, he attended Chicago's Columbia College on the G.I. bill. He was the only one in his family to graduate from college, such as it was.
``At the time, it was not even an accredited institution. I have a diploma literally not worth the paper it's printed on,'' he said.
Heinemann took a creative writing class at Columbia for what he thought would be a snap ``A.'' ``But I got fooled,'' he said. ``I had a story to tell.''
His teacher had been a medic in the Korean War. He gave Heinemann books to read - ``The Iliad'' and ``War and Peace.''
``I started from a standing stop,'' he recalled. But Heinemann must have been a quick study because he began teaching creative writing at Columbia in 1971, a job he held until he quit in 1986, the year ``Paco's Story'' was published.
Each of his two war novels took eight years to write.
``By the time I finished writing `Paco' I had been writing about Vietnam for 20 years,'' he said. He turned to a light-hearted novel about a Chicago loser, Max Nutmeg, because he wanted to write a book where nobody died. The first sentence is: ``Maximilian Nutmeg was a mildly incompetent, mostly harmless petty crook, always hustling for money.'' (``The first sentence,'' said Heinemann, ``is worth the price of the book.'')
And Heinemann also wanted to make some money.
``I don't teach. I don't wait tables. I write,'' he said.
He admits his brush with popular fiction was not lucrative, so now it's back to Vietnam. But not back to the war.
``The Vietnamese are tired of talking about it and I'm sick of talking about it, but I'm obliged,'' he said.
Fortunately, there's interest in modern Vietnam. And nonfiction pays more than fiction.
``The impulse and opportunity came together to write about contemporary Vietnam,'' he said. Heinemann, a train buff, went back to that country in 1992. He is currently working on a nonfiction book tentatively titled ``The Second Time Around: Travels by Train and Bicycle in Vietnam.''
Heinemann will be spending this week on campus in connection with the ``Vietnam Legacies'' conference, which begins on Thursday and runs through Sunday. Registration is still available (phone 752-0431).
He also will be at the opening ceremonies of The Moving Wall in Central Park at noon on Monday.
And this Saturday night individual tickets ($15) at the conference will be sold for readings by Vietnamese and American novelists and poets including Heinemann, Tim O'Brien, Bruce Weigl, Andrew Lam and Nguyen Qui Duc. The readings will begin at 7:30 p.m. in 1100 Social Sciences and Humanities building on the UCD campus.
Come and meet a great writer.