(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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.)


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

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.)


(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical 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.)