Tim O'Brien O'Brien, Tim (Vol. 19) - Essay

Tim O’Brien


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

O'Brien, Tim 1946–

O'Brien is an American novelist and journalist whose experiences as a soldier in Vietnam provide material for most of his writing. In the lengthy process of sorting out the effects of this war, O'Brien has used personal anecdotes, for If I Die in a Combat Zone, and fiction, for Northern Lights and Going After Cacciato. Critics generally agree that Going After Cacciato, which combines the realism of war zone journalism and the surrealism of a soldier's daydreams, is his most successful effort. This novel won the 1978 National Book Award. (See also CLC, Vol. 7, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85-88.)

Richard Freedman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

By turns lurid and lyrical, "Going After Cacciato" combines a surface of realistic war reportage … with a deeper level—perhaps possible only in fiction—of the surrealistic effect war has on the daydreams and nightmares of the combatants. To call "Going After Cacciato" a novel about war is like calling "Moby Dick" a novel about whales….

[As] the epigraph from Siegfried Sassoon says, "Soldiers are dreamers," and ever so gradually Cacciato's dream of peace becomes the dream of his pursuers until the line between cowardly desertion and righteous pursuit blurs. "Cacciato" in Italian means "hunted" or "caught": the novel concerns the way in which the hunters are caught in a vision of life far from the horrors of war.

In the process, the pursuers—and the reader—discover some truths about themselves and the nature of human existence. (p. 1)

But this makes a genuinely serious novel sound serious-minded, in an educational-television way; and far from being a high-minded, low-voltage debate on the rights and wrongs of Vietnam, "Going After Cacciato" is a fully dramatized account of men both in action and escaping from it….

Tim O'Brien's writing is crisp, authentic and grimly ironic…. As the characters are making their separate peace, their fare-well to arms, Hemingway rhythms emerge….

Perhaps all Americans writing about war must pay homage to Hemingway. But "Going After Cacciato" is unique in the way it counterpoints the gritty realism of combat against a dreamlike state in which "Money was never a problem, passports were never required. There were always new places to dance."

Clearly we are dealing here with what the new South American novelists would call "magical realism." To combine the two and make the result esthetically convincing is a major achievement and possibly the only way to deal with the truths of Vietnam. (p. 21)

Richard Freedman, "A Separate Peace," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1978 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 12, 1978, pp. 1, 21.

Doris Grumbach

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Going After Cacciato is, without reservation, one of the most challenging and powerful novels to find its way into print in some time.

O'Brien's infantry experience in Vietnam seems to have determined the shape and content of his literary career thus far. He wrote an undistinguished first novel, Northern Lights, and an excellent work of nonfiction, If I Die in a Combat Zone. With this third book he has accomplished something of a miracle. By using all the authentic and bloody detail that he knows so well from the war he survived, he has created a narrative that borders on myth and theology, psychology and epic, a picaresque parable of the imagination.

I have tried to find a novel to compare it to, to convey to the reader of the review not so much the story as the quality of the work. The closest (in one sense) I can come is The Tin Drum, only because Going After Cacciato is about Vietnam to the same extent that Günter Grass's classic novel is about Nazi Germany. In another sense it will remind some readers of Waiting for Godot in its broadest formulation, but no more than that….

Going After Cacciato is about the power of the mind, about daydreaming in the presence of war in the pursuit of peace, and about the possibilities of escape through "flights of imagination," a phrase O'Brien uses again and again. It is about the soldier's ability to substitute what he needs in order to bear what he must….

Written with rare skill, in a style that alternates between earthy soldier-talk and elegant descriptive passages, full of scenes of horror succeeded by humorous scenes, studded with believable and moving scenes of decency and courage (not so common in the recent literature of war) Cacciato contains the kind of truth that separates the shallow from fully realized and original fiction.

Doris Grumbach, "Walking Away from the Horror," in The Chronicle Review (copyright © 1978 by The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inc.), February 13, 1978, p. 14.

Elizabeth Pochoda

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Going After Cacciato borrows, for reasons not entirely clear to me, from the conventions of anti-war fiction as they are laid down in such books as A Farewell to Arms and Catch-22…. [Parts] of the narrative trade Hemingway's melodramatic understatement for the cartoonishness of Catch-22 which makes war nearly as exotic and interesting as it is horrifying and insane….

These bits of tone are the conventional signposts of O'Brien's novel. Fortunately its heart is to be found elsewhere—principally with Spec Four Paul Berlin at his observation post as he dreams a better ending to the war….

In the dream which occupies Berlin's hours on watch he and the rest of his comrades pursue the deserter Cacciato all the way to Paris treading a preposterously fine line between desertion and duty themselves. Their adventures and idylls along the road as Berlin imagines them are often formulaic, designed by the novelist to illustrate this or that about men in war and out of it. They are not particularly successful. What is successful and unusual in Going After Cacciato is the authenticity of Berlin's wish for peace and a destiny outside war.

The dreamed escape after Cacciato has another virtue connected to its vision of peace; it places the war crimes of the soldiers in brackets. We get to see what these men are like outside the drama of war, and this allows us to answer the...

(The entire section is 569 words.)

John Updike

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

As a fictional portrait of this war, "Going After Cacciato" is hard to fault, and will be hard to better…. (p. 130)

[An] entirely different kind of game is being played here from the deadly-true account of Vietnam military action, and the picaresque interludes, which take up about half the novel, serve not only as relief from Vietnam but as a kind of excuse from it. At another juncture, with a fine colorful flair that does not omit comedy and shrewd political irony, O'Brien involves his squad of heroes with the Savak—the Iranian security police—and a flamboyant escape and shoot-out and car chase climax the episode as rousingly as in a James Bond movie. Violence is everywhere, O'Brien may be saying; but the effect, when the narrative returns to Vietnam, is that a little Ian Fleming unreality has rubbed off on the real action, and the reader slogs through the paddies waiting for the next bravura display of adventure writing. Violence that did occur, historically and unentertainingly, has been demeaned, lightened. For all its horrors, Mr. O'Brien's Vietnam has a precious, bejewelled aspect; as the novel shuttles among its three loci—the actual war, the imagined flight, the long night of Paul Berlin at the observation post—there builds up a slightly insulating lacquer of self-conscious art.

Still, mind has to be present in a book as well as matter, and the ambitious structure of the novel bespeaks an earnest...

(The entire section is 518 words.)

Celia Betsky

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Going After Cacciato] is a highly idealistic work and a surprisingly lyrical one, offering a grittily beautiful picture of a war none of the participants seem to support or understand, and a vision of peace, of transcendence, which turns American involvement in Vietnam into merely a hellish way station on the road to potential salvation. (p. 603)

O'Brien's journey has more of the surrealism of Donald Barthelme's The Dead Father, another novel about a group search, than of the grim facts of Gloria Emerson or Michael Herr, yet it is his factuality that gives the book its eeriness. He creates a twentieth century picaresque, replete with comic touches …, hairbreadth escapes, and people representative of the spectrum of humanity. Because of the ascending movement of the journey—the trip goes up into the mountains and to Laos, India, Iran, Turkey, Athens, and Paris—it also conveys O'Brien's conception of progress. Not only does "going after Cacciato" mean escape, liberation, it makes the men learn together, experience love and responsibility…. As always with O'Brien, "the issue, of course, [is] courage"; not the courage to face the enemy, but to confront reality and push it closer to one's dreams and ideals, to accomplish the impossible.

The simplicity of O'Brien's language and statements, the dry remoteness of his tone, are deceptive, for they encompass a range of private emotions and...

(The entire section is 521 words.)

Thomas R. Edwards

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Toward its end, Going After Cacciato quotes from Yeats's "Meditations in Time of Civil War"—"We had fed the heart on fantasies, / The heart's grown brutal from the fare." The words are said in a fantasy-scene, by a character who exists only in another character's mind, and it seems an apt motto for a novel about private dreaming in the midst of the public disaster of Vietnam….

[Going After Cacciato] goes well beyond mere disillusionment about war and national policy. It is a book about the imagination itself, one which both questions and celebrates that faculty's way of resisting the destructive powers of immediate experience….

Berlin's dream-story can never...

(The entire section is 649 words.)