Friday, February 26, 2010

Going After Cacciato by Tim O'Brien

Going After CacciatoGoing After Cacciato by Tim O'Brien
1978, 336 pages

One day, soldier Cacciato leaves the fighting in Vietnam with the seemingly impossible intention of walking to Paris. His squad follows him, and corners him on a hill, where they wait through the night to ambush him in the morning. Paul Berlin, one soldier in Cacciato's squad, standing watch at night, begins to ponder the possibility of what would happen if Cacciato eluded them and led them all the way to Paris.
It was a fact that one day in the rain, during a bad time, the dummy [Cacciato] had packed up and walked away, a poor kid who wanted to see Paris, no mysterious motives or ambitions. A simple kid who ran away. There was no toying with the truth. It couldn't be colored or altered or made into more than it was. So the facts were simple: They went after Cacciato, they chased him into the mountains, they tried hard. They surrounded the hill. They waited through the night. And at dawn they shot the sky full of flares and then they moved in. [...]

That was the end of it. The last known fact.

What remained were possibilities. With courage it might have been done. (p323)
 On the back of my edition of this book, there's a quote from a New York Times review that says "To call Going After Cacciato a novel about war is like calling Moby-Dick a novel about whales." I've never read Moby Dick, but I couldn't agree more with the sentiment. From the very first quote before the story even began - "Soldiers are dreamers" - Siegfried Sassoon - I was completely engrossed and amazed by this book. The premise of this book may seem rather silly - a soldier trying to walk to Paris in the middle of the Vietnam War - but O'Brien uses this premise to show the effects of war on the soldiers fighting it, and the power and limitations of the imagination to cope under these circumstances.

From the beginning, O'Brien created a strong sense of place in the novel, and this continued throughout the book. I quickly became invested in the story and it didn't let up until I finished. I love his descriptions of both people and places, and the way they are intertwined with the action of the novel.

O'Brien manages to combine humorous events with the tragic effect of war seamlessly. I don't know how to describe what it is about his writing that gets me - it isn't particularly complicated, but it's real, and he really took me into the mind of Paul Berlin, which is part of what I loved so much about this book.
Paul Berlin, whose only goal was to live long enough to establish goals worth living for still longer, stood high in the tower by the sea, the night soft all around him, and wondered, not for the first time, about the immense powers of his own imagination. A truly awesome notion. Not a dream, an idea. An idea to develop, to tinker with and build and sustain, to draw out as an artist draws out his visions.

It was not a dream. Nothing mystical or crazy, just an idea. Just a possibility. Feet turning hard like stone, legs stiffening, six and seven and eight thousand miles through unfolding country toward Paris. A truly splendid idea. (p27)
At times humorous, at times intense, most often managing to be both at once, this book takes you into the mind of a soldier fighting in the Vietnam War, and I highly recommend it. Here's one more quote, of many, that just got to me when I was reading:
In the morning the fifty new men were marched to a wooden set of bleachers facing the sea. A small, sad-faced corporal in a black cadre helmet waited until they settled down, looking at the recruits as if searching for a lost friend in a crowd. Then the corporal sat down in the sand. He turned away and gazed out to sea. He did not speak. Time passed slowly, ten minutes, twenty, but still the sad-faced corporal did not turn or nod or speak. He simply gazed out at the blue sea. Everything was clean. The sea was clean, and the sand and the wind.

They sat in the bleachers for a full hour.

Then at last the corporal sighed and stood up. He checked his wristwatch. Again he searched the rows of new faces.

"All right," he said softly. "That completes your first lecture on how to survive this shit. I hope you paid attention." (p37)
I read this book for the War Through the Generations: Vietnam War Challenge.


  1. Oh, very interesting! This seems like a heavy read, but a good one. Excellent review!

    Une Parole

  2. I am very obsessed with war themes, so this is another book to my kitty! Loved your review!!

  3. this sounds intense, and very good as well. great review!

  4. I'm definitely going to have to get my hands on this one for the Vietnam challenge. Tim O'Brien is one of the best authors of war stories. We posted about your review here on War Through the Generations.

    Diary of an Eccentric