Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Going After Cacciato, O’Brien’s third published book, was a breakthrough for the writer. He returned to his experiences in Vietnam, first developed in his 1973 memoir, If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home, for his material; however, Going After Cacciato is a very different book from the earlier one in content, style, theme, and organization. Winner of the 1979 National Book Award, the book was widely regarded at its publication as the finest work of the Vietnam War experience.
O’Brien organizes the book into three threads that weave together a fully realized novel. One thread is the story of Spec Four Paul Berlin’s experiences over the previous six months during his tour of duty in Vietnam. The sixteen chapters constituting this thread are not arranged chronologically. At the heart of these chapters are the deaths of several of Berlin’s companions, the desertion of Cacciato, and Berlin’s responses to both. Another strand forms ten chapters of the novel, each titled “The Observation Post.” These chapters are set in the present time, as Berlin stands guard duty overnight. The chapters are particularly important to the structure of the novel, because they provide for the reader Berlin’s musings and waking dreams of what has happened to him. He imagines both what has really happened and what might have happened. The remaining thread of twenty chapters concerns a journey to Paris as the group of...
(The entire section is 573 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
Going After Cacciato is a novel about the Vietnam War, memory, and the imagination. The novel develops three distinct yet interwoven strands. The first is the story, told mostly in flashback, of Paul Berlin’s experiences in the U.S. Army in 1968, the height of the Vietnam War. The second strand consists of ten chapters, each entitled “The Observation Post.” In these chapters, Paul Berlin is on night watch at Quang Ngai. The “Observation Post” chapters are chronologically later than the chapters detailing Paul’s experiences. Throughout the night, he considers the nature of reality, “what happened, and what might have happened.” The third strand is concerned with an imaginary journey from Vietnam to Paris in pursuit of Cacciato, a soldier who is absent without leave (AWOL). Paul constructs this journey as he stands watch.
A number of critics describe Going After Cacciato as an example of Magical Realism, a style of writing that blends the fantastic with the realistic; O’Brien, however, has resisted the application of that label, insisting that daydreams are real.
The principle daydreamer in the novel is Paul, a young, frightened soldier who provides the point of view for all three strands of the novel. The reader is first introduced to Paul several pages into the novel, at the time of Cacciato’s decision to leave the squad and go AWOL. The squad begins chasing after Cacciato, the chapter ending just as the squad appears to be closing in on him.
The novel jumps in the next chapter to the observation post where Paul is standing overnight watch. The reader discovers that the time has...
(The entire section is 675 words.)
Summary (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
The title alludes to a character who only exists as an off-stage presence throughout this story, which opens as two soldiers tell their weary lieutenant that Cacciato (an Italian word meaning “hunted”) has left and plans to walk from Vietnam to Paris. Although the officer is almost immobilized by dysentery, age, alcohol, and disbelieving incomprehension of Cacciato’s plan, military discipline triumphs over his inertia. He orders Cacciato’s squad to pursue the deserter. The seven men set off in the ceaseless rain toward the Laotian border to the west.
As the group crosses the flat rice paddies and begins its ascent into the mountains, Paul Berlin, the narrator, becomes fixed on the object of their pursuit. The squad consensus is that Cacciato is outstandingly dumb: childish, immature, stupid, and unrealistic. As Cacciato’s presence continues to hang just out of reach—a figure glimpsed on the trail above, a chocolate wrapper found on the trail, traces of a camping place—Berlin begins to feel pity and affection for him, and eventually a kind of wonder at Cacciato’s simple-minded and single-minded plan of escape.
Doc Peret, the nurturing member of the squad, reasonably and compassionately counsels his ill officer to let Cacciato go, to declare him missing in action and let his plan fall flat under the weight of its own foolishness. The lieutenant orders the men to persist, in spite of his weakness and distaste for the hunt. Stink...
(The entire section is 549 words.)
Chapters 1-2 Summary
In 1968 during the Vietnam War, an American platoon is dwindling due to deaths in action, disease, and accidents. But no loss is as strange as the desertion of Cacciato, who decides he is done with the war and is walking to Paris. Lieutenant Corson, lying in his bunk debilitated by dysentery, is dumbstruck when Doc Peret tells him the news. Cacciato had told Paul Berlin of his plan personally. The lieutenant comments that Cacciato is just plain “dumb” to think he can walk from Southeast Asia to Western Europe, but secretly Paul Berlin hopes he makes it. The lieutenant decides the Third Squad will go after and retrieve Cacciato.
The squad spends the first night of their quest at the base of a mountain, miserable in the rain and the fog. The next day, Paul Berlin spots Cacciato half a mile up the mountain, patiently walking up the steep incline. Berlin recalls Cacciato looking through old atlases and maps and asking questions about the terrain. The squad finds Cacciato’s deserted camp under a ledge and prepares to spend the night. Murphy asks the lieutenant if he is thinking of turning back, but their leader is not.
Cacciato reaches the top of the second mountain. The squad sets off a smoke bomb to let him know they are following him, but Cacciato just turns and waves. That night the lieutenant radios back to headquarters and reports that he is “tracking the enemy.” He refuses all offers of support and supplies. As the rain pours down, Berlin confesses to Doc that he hopes Cacciato makes it. He thinks about the war, which he views as a constant stream of murder. He remembers the men who have died and just wishes for it all to end. He believes that Cacciato, despite his going AWOL, is not a coward; he reflects on the people that Cacciato has killed so far in the war.
The squad keeps walking after Cacciato. They can never quite catch up with him but have him always in sight. On the trail, Stink trips a wire and the squad ducks down, waiting for the explosion, but only smoke is released. Oscar Johnson runs up ahead to talk to Cacciato but is unable to convince him to return. Johnson says Cacciato has no weapon except his rifle. He had carried his supplies in a body bag. They fire a flare and spot Cacciato up ahead as usual.
Afterward returning to base, Paul Berlin wonders how much of their adventure actually happened. Much was unbelievable if not impossible. He is not sure where it ended. He wonders what eventually became of Cacciato. Doc tries to convince him that excessive bile in his system has infected his brain and affected his sense of reality.
Chapters 3-4 Summary
The Third Squad walks through jungle for days. After two days they find a trap Cacciato has escaped. There are a few empty ration cans and candy bar wrappers, along with his dog tags. The squad crosses over the last mountain and heads to the jungle in the valley below. They stop along a creek and soak their feet. Doc Peret shows the lieutenant on a map that in one more “klick” (kilometer) they will be in the neighboring country of Laos. The lieutenant answers the question of what they will do then by saying he does not know. Harold Murphy urges him to turn back. If they cross the border into Laos, they will officially be deserters. After resting a few more minutes, the men keep on walking. Paul Berlin struggles, hacking the foliage with his machete. Oscar Johnson says the lieutenant is about played out even though his dysentery is diminishing. There is no longer any sign of Cacciato.
For six days, the soldiers keep walking through jungle. Murphy is irate that they are wasting any more time on Cacciato; he believes they should go back to camp and officially declare Cacciato a deserter. The lieutenant falls in a stream and has to be carried out. As he recovers, the men take a vote on whether to keep walking or to turn back. The vote is to keep walking. In the morning, Harold Murphy is gone.
Paul Berlin flashes back to when he arrived at Chu Lai’s Combat Center in June. The camp borders the sea, and it is primitive and uncomfortable. He and the other newcomers do practice drills; they pitching fiberglass grenades and the officer tells them when they explode. They practice crawling through land mines, and Paul resents it when the officer declares him dead. Paul writes his father and tells him to look up where Chu Lai is because at the moment he feels lost. After seven days of training, the men are divided into three infantry brigades, which are then broken down further until the men are in squads. Paul remembers being in Indian Guides with his father and becoming lost. He was found, and eventually he became less sick of the camping experience. In the wooden latrine, Paul reads the scribbling of previous visitors. Many begin with, “I’m so short....” He adds his own: “I’m so short, I can’t see the forest for the trees.”
Paul is placed in the First Platoon of Alpha Company. The First Platoon leader dies and is replaced by Lieutenant Corson, whom the men love for taking no chances. When a chopper takes them into inland territory, Paul feels that is his first day of war.
Chapters 5-6 Summary
In November (following the squad’s search for Cacciato), Paul Berlin stands guard duty at midnight. He despairs at the incredible slowness of time. He checks his watch to make sure it is working; it is. Paul looks at Oscar’s raft and fantasizes about loading it up with supplies, using a poncho for a sail, and heading out across the Pacific Ocean to somewhere out at sea or perhaps even all the way home. He decides that counting will make the time move more quickly. He arrived on June 3, and it is now the end of November. He is not sure of the exact date because Vietnam lacks an autumn. He remembers Oscar’s birthday being in July. At first he thinks it was in August that Billy Boy Watkins died of fright, but he remembers it was...
(The entire section is 481 words.)
Chapters 7-8 Summary
The cart carrying the three women with Paul Berlin continues on the road toward Paris, and the other soldiers follow along. They ride for ten hours a day, stopping only to water the buffalo. They see no villages, only the dusty road curving over the plain. The vegetation is dry before the coming rainy season. As the cart moves along the road, Paul and Sarkin Aung Wan bump against other—not so accidentally. Paul thinks about the girls in Quang Ngai, whose beauty was quickly eroded away by poverty. Sarkin Aung Wan asks Paul if he and the others are soldiers. When he replies that they are, Sarkin Aung Wan is discouraged to learn that the war has come this far west. Paul is not sure, but he believes the war is still going on,...
(The entire section is 421 words.)
Chapters 9-10 Summary
Bernie Lynn’s death is recalled. Frenchie Tucker had crawled into a tunnel and was shot by friendly fire. Bernie retrieved his body but was also shot. Frenchie lay on the ground with his T-shirt pulled up under his armpits from being dragged. He had been shot through the nose. Ben Nystrom is trying to call for someone to get the dead and wounded out by chopper. Doc gives Bernie some M&Ms; he lets the wounded man think they were medicine. Bernie says over and over again that he heard it, but he does not identify exactly what he heard. Doc tells him to lie still until the “medicine” takes effect. Bernie has been shot in the throat down into his chest. Doc is trying to make him as comfortable as possible without hope. Ben...
(The entire section is 428 words.)
Chapters 11-12 Summary
A flashback to Jim Pedersen's death is presented. He was killed in a rice paddy, where muck covered (and entered) everything. Doc Peret located Pedersen’s broken dog tags and, as was common practice, put them in the soldier’s mouth and taped it shut. The chopper comes and takes Pedersen’s body away.
The others do not talk about him at first. They check their equipment and walk to a hill half a kilometer away. They look down at the village called Hoi An. Using whatever they have at hand, the soldiers try to remove muck, but it seems to be everywhere. The lieutenant checks the coordinates of the village and calls them in, asking for a marking round. As the men wait for the barrage of missiles, Paul Berlin looks at...
(The entire section is 406 words.)
Chapters 13-14 Summary
As they fall down the hole, Paul Berlin and Sarkin Aung Wan hold each other’s hands. There was time only to yell a warning and grab for his weapon before Paul started pinwheeling downward. Below he sees the buffalo, the cart, and the two women falling and disappearing. Sarkin Aung Wan smiles as she falls. Paul sees objects falling, then his fellow soldiers pass him. He wonders what happened to his march to Paris. He cannot control his bladder and wets his pants. Sarkin Aung Wan is amazed at how lovely it is. They land softly. Oscar Johnson lights a match; the tunnel is lined with red stone. They hear a high crazy giggling. It is Paul Berlin, and he cannot stop. Doc tries unsuccessfully to calm him.
(The entire section is 404 words.)
Chapters 15-16 Summary
In the tunnel, Li Van Hgoc explains that things may be viewed from many angles, just as the incident of the two men killed at the tunnel is different from the perspective seen through the periscope. He takes Paul into a chamber resembling a patio, complete with birds and butterflies. He escorts the lieutenant into the room. Corson is impressed but explains that it is time for the Americans to live. Van explains that they cannot; they are now prisoners of war. Corson explains that the American soldiers are armed; Van is not. Corson orders Stink to tie him up after pointing a rifle at Van. Van explains he is a prisoner of war, just as the Americans are. He tells them of his life, how he was a promising student in electronics when he...
(The entire section is 402 words.)
Chapters 17-18 Summary
Sarkin Aung Wan leads the soldiers westward through the tunnels. They wade through sewage, holding their noses against the smell. At last they come to a steel ladder bolted to stone. They exit the tunnels through a manhole cover, into the streets of Mandalay. Although the outer streets are dust and the shanties are mud, they soon reach concrete tenements and the market square, which is deserted. At last they reach the boulevard and see civilization. They take the trolley toward the city center. Paul Berlin is overjoyed to be among people in the bright city. The trolley takes them directly to the Hotel Minneapolis. It is very cheap, and they are immediately given rooms.
Sarkin Aung Wan and Paul Berlin share a room....
(The entire section is 404 words.)
Chapters 19-20 Summary
It is November after the “walk to Paris,” and Paul Berlin is still on guard duty at three in the morning. The Jolly Roger flag Eddie made is flying at half mast from the observation post. As hot as the days are, Paul is amazed at how cold the nights can be. He lights another cigarette. The war has taught him to smoke. He decides not to wake Stink for his guard duty. Tonight there will be no changing of the guard. Paul reflects that this time of night is the most dangerous, for it is now that observation posts are most often attacked. He tries to forget and think of other things, such as his trek to Paris. He thinks about life after the war and the stories he will tell. He wonders about Cacciato. What did he do about food and...
(The entire section is 402 words.)
Chapters 21-22 Summary
On a December morning, Paul Berlin awakens on a train. The view is the same rice fields he has seen the last two hundred miles. Paul checks on the lieutenant, who is asleep. Paul covers him with a poncho liner, accidentally awakening him. Paul tells him they are almost to Chittagong, which strikes the lieutenant as odd.
He tells Paul about the first time he was busted in the army, for being in a fight in which he never participated. A Seebee named Jack Daniels took him to a bar; the lieutenant passed out drunk. Jack Daniels started a brawl, and both were arrested. The lieutenant vows to get back at him should he see him again. He tells Paul they have been kidnapped, that Cacciato is small potatoes. Paul does not argue,...
(The entire section is 408 words.)
Chapters 23-24 Summary
Third Squad reaches Delhi, India, and checks into the Hotel Phoenix. There Lieutenant Corson falls madly in love. They arrived at noon, and Paul Berlin views it as the India he had always believed in. The lieutenant falls in love with the wife of the manager of the hotel, who introduces herself as Hamijolli Chand, known as Jolly. She is overjoyed at the arrival of Americans, telling them she had a premonition that today some Americans would come. She spent two years studying in America, becoming “corrupted,” as her husband said. She thinks that American television in one of the greatest things ever invented. It brings a society together.
The lieutenant is enthralled, calling her one classy lady. Later Jolly brings...
(The entire section is 394 words.)
Chapters 25-26 Summary
The previous summer, the platoon’s first mission was to the mountains. Sidney Martin was the lieutenant, and he warned that there would be no malingering. He believed in “mission” above all else. The road was difficult, going straight up into the mountains. The dryness and heat make the march torturous.
The platoon of thirty-eight men is led by a thirteen-year-old native scout. All the men are tired and drag themselves along the road. Paul Berlin struggles to keep walking. He decides to stop, lie down along the road, and sip the Coke in his backpack. However, he can’t make his legs go along with this decision, so he keeps walking.
In Delhi, Cacciato does not show himself again, although the soldiers...
(The entire section is 397 words.)
Chapters 27-28 Summary
Members of the Third Squad find themselves on one of the newer, faster trains bound for Afghanistan. They are the only passengers in the car. The lieutenant awakens, looks out to see mountains capped with snow, and proclaims that he has been kidnapped.
Paul Berlin observes the landscape and thinks it is like the “World’s Greatest Lake Country,” where they went on their first mission. After they climbed up into the mountains, Paul sat in a little depression, hiding during the one big battle of the war so far. All he could do was lie there, twitching and holding his breath. Then Lieutenant Sidney Martin stood up and yelled for them to advance. Ready Mix (no one ever knew his real name) was shot, but they kept...
(The entire section is 406 words.)
Chapters 29-30 Summary
The men of Third Squad stop in Tehran, Iran, in December. There they celebrate Christmas by sneaking in to the Shah’s National memorial Gardens and chopping down a tree. They drink, trip the tree, try to sing some carols, and then smoke the last of Oscar’s marijuana. Sarkin Aung Wan goes to bed, and Eddie and Oscar play craps. Paul Berlin dismisses all this since they are in a land of “infidels” anyway. The lieutenant becomes sick again, the dysentery returning. More troublesome is that he sits wrapped in blankets, eating and saying nothing. Doc says this is very serious, a sign that he has brain fever. He says it is nostalgia, a homesickness for the war, and the only antidote is time.
The men wander Tehran as...
(The entire section is 404 words.)
Chapters 31-32 Summary
The platoon of thirty-two soldiers is on night march, silently crossing the meadow to the rice paddy. Lieutenant Sidney Martin signals the men to kneel and stay still. All they hear is their breathing and one of the men urinating. Some are excited, others afraid or exhausted.
Paul Berlin lies quietly, his forehead resting on his rifle. He pretends he is not in the war but home camping with his father. This is his first day, but in the morning he will be at the sea and try to forget, hoping the second day will not be so bad. He hears a voice next to him, but he is barely able to see the round face smiling beside him. The two crawl into the paddy, where the other soldiers are strung out. He looks at the stars, telling him...
(The entire section is 405 words.)
Chapters 33-34 Summary
On the tenth of February, the men of Third Squad were arrested again. Taken from their boardinghouse, they were jailed for eight days in separate cells. Paul Berlin saw no one, his meals delivered through a sliding panel. He passed the time sleeping, but he was awakened and blindfolded while his neck was shaved. The blindfold removed, he was taken to another room where the other soldiers were handcuffed to a pillar. Captain Fahyi Rhallon comes in, apologizing. He tells them that their situation is very serious. They are charged with sabotage, along with several other crimes including desertion. This strikes Oscar Johnson as funny. The American Embassy in Tehran has no verification that they are traveling under official auspices; in...
(The entire section is 385 words.)
Chapters 35-36 Summary
Paul Berlin goes to find Cacciato fishing in the Lake Country. Cacciato had tied a paperclip to a piece of string and baited it with bits of ham, casting it into a flooded crater. Paul tries to tell him there are no fish in there, but Cacciato keeps fishing, insisting he has had some nibbles on the line. Paul tells him that the others want him to touch the grenade as a sign of camaraderie in a plan to stand up to Lieutenant Sidney Martin’s insistence that all the tunnels be searched. Cacciato tells Paul that Martin is not all that bad and resists, so Paul grabs his hand and places it against the grenade. He returns and tells the others that Cacciato is in.
From their prison cells in Tehran, the men are taken at...
(The entire section is 402 words.)
Chapters 37-38 Summary
Paul Berlin is well acquainted with the land in the same way a hunter studies his terrain. He knows the safe places and the dangerous spots. Quang Ngai is farm country, and the villages and paddies are part of the land. He finds nothing loathsome in the smell of the paddies, even though he is warned they are sources of disease. After the paddies, Paul thinks of the hedgerows, thick, unclipped, and tangled. They serve as a kind of clothing for the villages. The earth itself is red, likely because of high iron content, Doc Peret explains. Since the war is fought with feet and legs, Paul knows the trails well. They are obvious spots of ambush, with mines scattered along the sides. Paul wonders where the birds have gone, but Eddie asks...
(The entire section is 400 words.)
Chapters 39-40 Summary
Stink screams what he believes are Vietnamese commands to the villagers, ordering them to lie down. They just look at him, uncomprehending. He continues to scream, consulting the Vietnamese-English dictionary the other soldiers gave him for his birthday. They love watching him try to give orders, mixing up the two languages so they are unintelligible to either. Eventually, Stink fires his rifle and the villagers lie down and cover their heads. Stink tells Doc they obviously understand him fine, he just had to “punctuate” his sentences.
Because they do not know the language, the Americans do not understand the people. They do not know how they feel about the war or about American soldiers. Perhaps their facial...
(The entire section is 400 words.)
Chapters 41-42 Summary
The battle ends at the ditch and continues like "dripping rain after a storm." In the ditch, Cacciato finds Buff, one of the platoon. They drag Buff from the ditch and lay his body in the grass, covering it with a poncho. Eddie calls for a helicopter to retrieve the corpse. Doc examines the body, removing the ammunition and searching the pockets. Eddie tells him he forgot to check the helmet, but Doc tells him to just cover him up.
Paul Berlin closes his eyes, trying to imagine himself at the bottom of a chlorinated pool. He thinks of Buff’s shirt sticking to his shoulders. Buff was short for “Water Buffalo” because he was overweight and stank when he sweated, which was often. Cacciato opens a can of peaches and...
(The entire section is 398 words.)
Chapters 43-44 Summary
On April first, the men and Sarkin Aung Wan board the train for Paris. It is a four-hour ride from Luxembourg, but it has been a four-month march from Vietnam. Paul Berlin wants to yell when he sees Paris in the distance. He cleans off the window, but the passing villages still shows signs of the ravages left by the Second World War.
It is raining when they arrive in Paris. They all hug each other, exhilarated that they have at last reached their goal. They stay in a hotel not far from the Italian embassy. They leisurely search for Cacciato without any seriousness. Paul realizes he is in love. Sarkin Aung Wan wants to find an apartment. Staying in a hotel makes their stay in Paris seem temporary; an apartment will...
(The entire section is 405 words.)
Chapters 45-46 Summary
At his Observation Post, Paul Berlin watches dawn break. Soon the other men will awaken and go on patrol. There is no prospect of battles, only a long, hot day. These are the facts. The war was still a war, and he was still a soldier. He had not deserted or run. It is now six o’clock. The facts are that several men are dead, but he has trouble relating the chronology and reality of other facts. It is a fact that one day, Cacciato left the war and went walking toward Paris. Third Squad went after him, following his trail into the mountains. They cornered him on a hill. They shot flares into the sky and moved in, but Paul shouted to Cacciato to go. This is the last known fact. The rest is only possibilities.
(The entire section is 411 words.)