The other week I finished reading Going After Cacciato, by Tim O’Brien. Cacciato is O’Brien’s fourth book. Like his other famous books, The Things They Carried and If I Die in a Combat Zone, it details the experiences of a young enlisted man during the Vietnam War. And like these other books, Cacciato is terrific, written in a way that blurs the distinction between fact and fiction, reality and dream. It is a surreal reflection on the realities of war and the dream of leaving it, written in a way that is believable and engrossing. It is no wonder, then, that in 1979, Going After Cacciato was awarded the National Book Award for Fiction.
Cacciato is a smiling, enigmatic foot soldier that, at the novel’s beginning, has decided to go AWOL. He has decided to march from Vietnam to Paris, and so that is what he does. The rest of his squad, including the main protagonist Paul Berlin, are left wondering what to do. Do they follow after Cacciato through booby-trapped bush, or do they give up and let him go? After an initial hike of days on Cacciato’s trail, the soldiers make their decision. They hump out of Vietnam and follow Cacciato towards Paris. From there the novel tells two intertwined stories: the soldiers’ hunt for Cacciato, and the they lives in Vietnam before Cacciato left.
The hunt for Cacciato takes the them from Asia to Europe through India, Iran, Turkey, Germany, and finally, France. Away from the war, their lives improve, and they bring with them a young Burmese refugee that has always dreamed of Paris. But as they travel further from the war zone, one question lingers on every man’s mind: did they leave to bring Cacciato back, or did they leave to follow him, to go AWOL too? Interspersed throughout these adventures are Paul Berlin’s reflections of the war and the death of the previous members of his squad. In calm, almost photographic detail, Berlin recounts the deaths of these men.
Billy Boy had died of fright, scared to death on the field of battle, and Frienchie Tucker had been shot through the nose. Bernie Lynn and Lieutenant Sidney Martin had died in tunnels. Pederson was dead and Rudy Chassler was dead. Buff was dead. Ready Mix was dead. They were all among the dead
Paul Berlin also recounts his reflections on the war during nights spent on an observation post. In the end, once all the stories have been told, we are left to reflect on Berlin’s own thoughts at these posts:
What part was fact and what part was the extension of fact? And how were facts separated from possibilities? What had really happened and what merely might have happened? How did it end?
If you’ve read O’Brien then you know that he has a remarkable ability to capture the true cadence of human speech and conversation. His ability to juggle the conversations, interruptions, and ruminations of six-plus characters — all the while maintaining each voice as distinct and real — is amazing. Further, his chapters read more like subtle short stories, and I imagine that subtlety is difficult to achieve in a war novel. My favorite chapter is “Pickup Games”, which tells the story of a period of calm during the war when the men find a basket ball and spend every evening playing pickup games. But a nagging since of reality overshadows this period of calm, and the men grow anxious waiting for the war to return. When it finally does, the return to reality is a relief for them all.
I’ve never been in a war or any situation where the risk of violent death is a constant specter. I can’t comment on this part of O’Brien’s novel other than to say that it is well written, reserved, and entirely believable. From the fiction side of things, Going After Cacciato is smart, entertaining, and thought-provoking. I met O’Brien once and found him to be quiet and unassuming. But he was also friendly and happy to talk to anyone, and he even waved to me on the street afterwards. He signed my copy of The Things They Carried which I carried around in a plastic bag to protect it from the rain. He was very generous. I wish I had had a copy of Going After Cacciato for him to sign as well.