Broadway Books, 1999
originally published 1978
"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?"
Normally a book of 336 pages is nothing daunting and usually about 2-3 days of reading time. I spent well over one week on Going After Cacciato, filled one entire spiral-bound notebook with notes and questions and went through almost an entire package of little sticky tabs for marking things I wanted to come back to later. Because I felt that this is a book that I genuinely wanted (and still want) to understand, I got up in the wee hours of the a.m. to read before anyone was up and came downstairs to interrupt me. I bought books about Tim O'Brien & books about approaching Vietnam War literature, I skimmed then downloaded copious amounts of scholarly articles about Cacciato, all to come back to later, and well, you get the drift here. There is so much going on here that it deserves much more time and intense scrutiny than I've given it, and if that doesn't recommend it, I don't know what will.
Considering my fascination and admiration for this novel, this book is best experienced by the reader, so what I'm going to say here is going to be relatively brief. The novel opens with a haunting paragraph, a list of the deaths of people who were in main character Paul Berlin's squad:
"It was a bad time. Billy Boy Watkins was dead, and so was Frenchie Tucker. Billy Boy had died of fright, scared to death on the field of battle, and Frenchie 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. Ready Mix was dead. They were all among the dead."Then in October, Cacciato, another platoon member, "left the war," ... "Split, departed." He had told Paul Berlin that he would be going off to Paris -- 8,600 miles, walking all the way. Cacciato's route was to take him
"up through Laos, then into Burma, and then some other country...and then India and Iran and Turkey, and then Greece, and the rest is easy."The decision is made by the lieutenant that the squad will go after Cacciato -- and so it begins. Incredible premise for a novel about the Vietnam War, isn't it? As the squad makes its way on the 8,600-mile trek, at some point you begin to realize that things that happen on the way to Paris link to the squad's real war experiences in Vietnam, the second narrative strand in this book, which eventually tells the stories of how the ten men listed at the beginning died. In the third thread, Paul Berlin reflects on the war and his place in it over one night on watch in an observation post along the South China Sea, and it is also there that he begins to work out the possibilities of "What happened and what might have happened," to Cacciato and by extension, to himself and the squad chasing after the AWOL soldier. Time moves slowly in the observation post, giving Paul Berlin space to realize that the "critical point" is that "It could truly be done." Cacciato's flight also gives Paul Berlin time to reflect on the question of fear, the soldier's constant companion, and courage:
"The issue, of course, was courage. How to behave. Whether to flee or fight or seek an accommodation. The issue was not fearlessness. The issue was how to act wisely in spite of fear. Spiting the deep-running biles: That was true courage. He believed this. And he believed the obvious corollary: The greater a man's fear, the greater his potential courage."
O'Brien has created a story that blurs the lines between reality and imagination, fantasy and fact, leaving it to the reader to try to sort it all out somehow. Reality and facts are definitely present in this story, as are, believe it or not scenes of restlessness and tedium in the midst of war, but all are related in a disjointed, jarring sort of way that likely reflects the often surreal Vietnam war experiences of those who were there and how they processed internally what they saw and how they remembered things later. On the flip side, there are several instances in this book that not only verge on but fall smack into the territory of the surreal.
As noted above, this is a novel that needs to be experienced individually -- while a number of readers were totally turned off by the verge into the fantastical, for me it's probably one of the most powerful, well-written books I've ever read. Any book that wants to make me get into the head of the guy who wrote it or that keeps me thinking about it long after the last page is turned is more than worthy.