Going After Cacciato Summary
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 soldiers chase after Cacciato. Readers gradually realize that the journey to Paris is completely imaginary, set off by Berlin’s nocturnal meanderings as he tries to make sense of the reality of his past six months in Vietnam. Ultimately, the journey to Paris seems no more or no less fantastic than the “reality” of the Vietnam experience.
The first chapter of the novel, “Going After Cacciato,” has been widely anthologized as a stand-alone story. “It was a bad time,” the story opens, before listing the boys in the squad who have met death, disease, or disability, before turning to a description of the day that Cacciato goes AWOL, leaving not only his squad but also the Vietnam War behind.
Following the opening chapter is the first “Observation Post” chapter of the book. In this chapter, as others with the same title, Berlin literally observes his external and internal realities. Most of all, Berlin considers courage and cowardice. Berlin’s consideration results in an elaborately plotted journey to Paris that includes not only the members of his squad, a member of the Viet Cong, and a beautiful woman, but it also includes allusions to many of the major genres and works of literature and popular culture, including Lewis Carroll, Ernest Hemingway, and the “road” movies of Bing Crosby and Bob Hope. It is as if Berlin concocts the story of the Vietnam War with pieces and parts of American culture floating through his daydreams.
The last chapter of the novel returns to the first, signaled by the repetition of the title, “Going After Cacciato.” In this chapter, the reader finally can piece together what has happened in the book: At the moment of the squad’s first attempt to capture Cacciato, Berlin collapses in fear and wets his pants. The rest of the novel is Berlin’s response to this event as he tries to come to terms with what he views as shameful and visible evidence of his own cowardice.
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...
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