An Impossible Wish in a Time of War: Tim O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato
Tim O'Brien's Going After Cacciato seems to be a bit of everything -- war reportage, Western, adventure, psychological thriller, picaresque, fantasy, and magical realism -- all rolled into one book. So, how can this be? What can support all these genres? The answer: a plea for a reprieve, an impossible wish, in the form of one soldier's mystical dream of escape.
Like many young soldiers in Vietnam, Paul Berlin is afraid. During his first six months in the country, he witnesses tragedy upon tragedy: Billy Boy Watkins is literally scared to death; Pederson is accidentally killed in the paddies; Buff is shot in the face searching a tunnel and Bernie Lynn is shot retrieving him; Lieutenant Sidney Martin, in another tunnel, is blown up by his own men. Still, what most haunts Paul Berlin is not necessarily death, but rather his questionable courage, his "knowing he will not fight well." So he copes however he can. He counts things, catalogs details, remembers camping with his father and dancing with Louise Wiertsma. But his best asset in coping is none other than his own imagination and its muse -- Cacciato.
Cacciato is a nondescript, somewhat oblivious soldier. When he deserts the squad to walk 8,600 miles to Paris, his squad chases him over mountains and jungle, before abandoning the mission, and turning back to the war. But later, having reached a post on the shore of the China Sea, Paul Berlin asks himself a simple question: What if they hadn't turned back? What would have happened? And so we're led on a fantastic journey, an altered, imagined world, where the squad refuses to turn back without Cacciato, where they continue the chase -- through Laos, Burma, and Afghanistan; through Iran, where they're arrested and almost executed; through Turkey, Greece, Yugoslavia, Germany. And the farther they chase Cacciato, the clearer it becomes: They, too, are abandoning the war. They become civilians; they stop marching and start walking; Paul Berlin even finds love. When the squad finally reaches Paris, the mission appears all but dead. They try to balance soldierly duties with newfound freedom, only to discover that to gain, and maintain, true freedom, they must soldier again -- they must capture Cacciato.
Like Paul Berlin's mind, Going After Cacciato is mixed up (though appropriately so). It jumps in time and place and story; weaves and binds together reality and imagination; leaves you with a collage of the war and its characters. Its structure is underscored by the rough, yet lyrical, prose of Tim O'Brien.
Published in 1978, Going After Cacciato won the National Book Award, cementing Tim O'Brien's place as the literary voice of the Vietnam War. This was validated in 1990 with the publication of his best-known book, The Things They Carried, and later by In the Lake of the Woods.
That was one of the jokes. There was a joke about Oscar. There were many jokes about Billy Boy Watkins, the way he'd collapsed of fright on the field of battle. Another joke was about the lieutenant's dysentery, and another was about Paul Berlin's purple biles. There were jokes about the postcard pictures of Christ that Jim Pederson used to carry, and Stink's ringworm, and the way Buff's helmet filled with life after death. Some of the jokes were about Cacciato. Dumb as a bullet, Stink said. Dumb as a month-old oyster fart, said Harold Murphy.
In October, near the end of the month, Cacciato left the war.
"He's gone away," said Doc Peret. "Split, departed."
Lieutenant Corson did not seem to hear. He was too old to be a lieutenant. The veins in his nose and cheeks were broken. His back was weak. Once he had been a captain on the way to becoming a major, but whiskey and the fourteen dull years between Korea and Vietnam had ended all that, and now he was just an old lieutenant with the dysentery.
He lay on his back in the pagoda, naked except for green socks and green undershorts.
"Cacciato," Doc repeated. "The kid's left us. Split for parts unknown."
The lieutenant did not sit up. With one hand he cupped his belly, with the other he guarded a red glow. The surfaces of his eyes were moist.
"Gone to Paris," Doc said.
The lieutenant put the glow to his lips. Inhaling, his chest did not move. There were no vital signs in the wrists or thick stomach.
"Paris," Doc Peret repeated. "That's what he tells Paul Berlin, and that's what Berlin tells me, and that's what I'm telling you. The chain of command, a truly splendid instrument. Anyhow, the guy's definitely gone. Packed up and retired."
The lieutenant exhaled. Blue gunpowder haze produced musical sighs in the gloom, a stirring at the base of Buddha's clay feet. "Lovely," a voice said. Someone else sighed. The lieutenant blinked, coughed, and handed the spent roach to Oscar Johnson, who extinguished it against his toenail.
"Paree?" the lieutenant said softly. "Gay Paree?"
Doc nodded. "That's what he told Paul Berlin and that's what I'm telling you. Ought to cover up, sir."
Sighing, swallowing hard, Lieutenant Corson pushed himself up and sat stiffly before a can of Sterno. He lit the Sterno and placed his hands behind the flame and bent forward to draw in heat. Outside, the rain was steady. "So," the old man said. "Let's figure this out." He gazed at the flame. "Trick is to think things clear. Step by step. You said Paree?"
"Affirm, sir. That's what he told Paul Berlin, and that's--"
"Right here, sir. This one."
The lieutenant looked up. His eyes were bright blue and wet. Paul Berlin pretended to smile.
"Jeez," the old man said, shaking his head. "I thought you were Vaught."
"I thought he was you. How . . . how do you like that? Mixed up, I guess. How do you like that?"
The lieutenant shook his head sadly. He held a boot to dry over the burning Sterno. Behind him in shadows was the crosslegged Buddha, smiling from its elevated stone perch. The pagoda was cold. Dank from a month of rain, the place smelled of clays and silicates and dope and old incense. It was a single square room built like a pillbox with stone walls and a flat ceiling that forced the men to stoop or kneel. Once it might have been a fine house of worship, neatly tiled and painted, but now it was junk. Sandbags blocked the windows. Bits of broken pottery lay under chipped pedestals. The Buddha's right arm was missing but the smile was intact. Head cocked, the statue seemed interested in the lieutenant's long sigh. "So. Cacciato, he's gone. Is that it?"
"There it is," Doc said. "You've got it."
Paul Berlin nodded.
"Gone to gay Paree. Am I right? Cacciato's left us in favor of Paree in France." The lieutenant seemed to consider this gravely. Then he giggled. "Still raining?"
"A bitch, sir."
"I never seen rain like this. You ever? I mean, ever?"
"No," Paul Berlin said. "Not since yesterday."
"And I guess you're Cacciato's buddy. Is that the story?"
"No, sir," Paul Berlin said. "Sometimes he'd tag along. Not really."
"Who's his buddy?"
"Nobody. Maybe Vaught. I guess Vaught was, sometimes."
"Well," the lieutenant murmured. He paused, dropping his nose inside the boot to sniff the sweating leather. "Well, I reckon we better get Mister Vaught in here. Maybe he can straighten this shit out."
"Vaught's gone, sir. He's the one--"
"Mother of Mercy."
Doc draped a poncho over Lieutenant Corson's shoulders. The rain was steady and thunderless and undramatic. It was mid-morning, but the feeling was of endless dusk.
The lieutenant picked up the second boot and began drying it. For a time he did not speak. Then, as if amused by something he saw in the flame, he giggled again and blinked. "Paree," he said. "So Cacciato's gone off to gay Paree--bare ass and Frogs everywhere, the Follies Brassiere." He glanced up at Doc Peret. "What's wrong with him?"
"Just dumb. He's just awful dumb, that's all."
"And he's walking. You say he's walking to gay Paree?"
"That's what he claims, sir, but you can't trust--"
"Paree! Jesus Christ, does he know how far it is? I mean, does he know?"
Paul Berlin tried not to smile. "Eight thousand six hundred statute miles, sir. That's what he told me--eight thousand six hundred on the nose. He had it down pretty good. Rations, fresh water, a compass, and maps and stuff."
"Maps," the lieutenant said. "Maps, flaps, schnaps." He coughed and spat, then grinned. "And I guess he'll just float himself across the ocean on his maps, right? Am I right?"
"Well, not exactly," said Paul Berlin. He looked at Doc Peret, who shrugged. "No, sir. He showed me how . . . See, he says he's going up through Laos, then into Burma, and then some other country, I forget, and then India and Iran and Turkey, and then Greece, and the rest is easy. That's what he said. The rest is easy, he said. He had it all doped out."
"In other words," the lieutenant said, and hesitated. "In other words, fuckin AWOL."
From the Trade Paperback edition.