Tim O'Brien Essay - Tim O'Brien Short Fiction Analysis

Tim O’Brien

Tim O'Brien Short Fiction Analysis

Tim O’Brien is in essence a writer of the Vietnam War, but his relationship with that war is not simple. It is his setting, the geographical and historical reality in which his best stories are played out. It is his story, his material, the subject matter of his telling. It is also the reason he must write—because he went to Vietnam, certain things happened to him that require him to write, trying, as he says “to save Timmy’s life with a story. ”

Vietnam also defines for him a constituency. The three and a half million people who served in Southeast Asia between 1964 and 1975 constitute the group to which he is responsible, the men and women for whom and to whom he speaks in his best work. He is sharply aware of his responsibility to this audience, which requires him to tell the truth about Vietnam—to shun oversimplifying, moralizing, or taking the easy way out. Scrupulous honesty about Vietnam—a situation where confusion, mystery, fear, uncertainty, and moral ambiguity reigned supreme—require O’Brien to shun straightforward narrative techniques, easy moralizing, or self-protective authorial distance.

Out of this need to be faithful to the deep truth about the Vietnam War experience, O’Brien developed his way of building a story like a jigsaw, out of a set of interlocking pieces. Books are built of story-pieces; stories are built of moment-pieces. In the spaces between the pieces, there is room for interpretation, for uncertainty, for mystery. It is because of this structure built up from fragments that it is impossible to categorize some of O’Brien’s work as either a unitary novel or a collection of short stories, either fiction or nonfiction: He has deliberately abandoned the security of categories.

“Going After Cacciato”

This story, which was selected for The Best American Short Stories 1977 and The Pushcart Prize (and also grew into the novel Going After Cacciato), deals with the Vietnam draftee’s terrible ambivalence about the war—the passionate desire to be someplace else, balanced against the utterly unthinkable act of leaving. O’Brien writes about this conflict in a number of his works. In this story, the two sides of the issue are embodied by the deserter Cacciato, on the one hand, and the obedient soldiers pursuing him, on the other.

Cacciato is a fool. His simplemindedness frees him to think simple, direct thoughts and take simple, direct action. His foolishness liberates him from the weight of duty, propriety, inertia, and expectation that chains the more “mature” soldiers to the war. When he wants to be elsewhere, he simply goes. His going is a radical act that threatens the whole conceptual structure of the war, because he enacts the possibility of saying no. The entire war mentality, as seen by O’Brien, depends on individual men finding it unthinkable to say no in such a way. Thus, Cacciato, always seen in the distance (like a wishing star or a mirage), becomes the image of unthinkable possibilities to the obedient soldiers still caught in the war. As one of them puts it, “Can’t hump away from a war, isn’t that...

(The entire section is 1291 words.)