Going After Cacciato

by Tim O’Brien

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 675

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 shifted to sometime after Cacciato’s flight and that Paul is occupying himself with reconstructions of his squad’s attempt to capture Cacciato.

The next chapter, then, is the product of these thoughts. Paul imagines that his squad chooses to go after Cacciato, crossing over the border into Laos. This choice launches the journey to Paris that Paul imagines. Along the way, the squad picks up a young refugee woman named Sarkin Aung Wan.

Interspersed with chapters such as this one, detailing the daydream journey, are chapters in which Paul recalls the reality he has lived through for the past six months. Through these chapters, the reader discovers that Billy Boy Watkins died of fright on the battlefield, that Bernie Lynn and Frenchie Tucker were killed when trying to clear out a tunnel, and that First Lieutenant Sidney Martin was killed by his own men for insisting that the men continue to clear tunnels. Paul circles around these stories several times. Each time the event comes to the surface, the descriptions become more detailed, and Paul’s reality becomes increasingly more surreal. Indeed, the moments of Paul’s “waking life” seem so horrendous that they become more fantastic than the moments spent on the daydream journey to Paris.

The short “Observation Post” chapters often separate the fantasy chapters from the past experience chapters. At the observation post, the reader observes Paul engaged in the process of creating the story that the reader will read in the following chapter. However, the “Observation Post” chapters are not always followed by a fantasy chapter; sometimes the following chapter is a recollection of a past experience. Consequently, the reader is forced to consider the relationship between memory and imagination and to ask these questions: Is memory constructed in the same way that imaginary stories are constructed? If so, what is nature of reality?

The final chapter of the book is a return to the events of the first chapter. Paul’s squad once again is shooting flares at Cacciato’s position, and the squad prepares to rush Cacciato. For the first time, the reader discovers that Paul collapses in fright and loses control of his bladder. The shame and humiliation of the moment, apparently, have been the impetus for Paul’s flight of fancy. As the book closes, Cacciato has escaped, and no one really knows what has happened to him. Perhaps, after all, he makes it to Paris.

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