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REVIEW: Tim O'Brien: Going After Cacciato
8.13.2002 by Sean, every Tuesday.

"In October, near the end of the month, Cacciato left the war."

It's a page into Going After Cacciato that this sentence appears, but it's here that the novel begins in earnest. Till this point, it's been an accounting-for: characters (soldiers) with anecdotes (leeches on tongues), deaths (in tunnels, through the nose, in the paddy), and names (Frenchie Tucker, Stink Harris, Billy Boy watkins). It's been Vietnam - the familiar, fungal smell of modern myth, the well-trodden trails of martyrdom and senseless sacrifice.

But then it changes.

With Cacciato and his departure, O'Brien's novel dilates, turns, and stares over the green hills to Paris - for it's there that Cacciato is headed. All of the cliches fall away, they scatter, and then slowly - with careful, measured speed - rise out of the bushes and huddle on either side of that path to France, smudged and out-of-order.

Going After Cacciato is the story of Spec Four Paul Berlin, of his acts and his dreams. When Cacciato - happy, simple, determined - ups and leaves the war, Berlin's squad is sent after him. Catch the deserter, bring him back. Back to the marching and to the mines and to the World's Greatest Lake Country. So they go - at first snickering, later resentful and, ultimately, as Cacciato leads them further and further down those unimaginable eight thousand six-hundred miles to Paris... joyous. They are not AWOL - no sir! - but as the Eiffel Tower rises in the distance, there is the realization that perhaps Cacciato was not so mad, after all. Perhaps he was simply free.

The formal narrative is no more straightforward than the task. Throughout the book, Berlin struggles with memory and meaning. He can remember only fragments of his life, here and there, and has no control of which moments he retains, or in what order they come.
"The order of things - chronologies - that was the hard part. Long stretches of silence, dullness, long nights and endless days on the march, and sometimes the truly bad times: Pederson, Buff, Frenchie Tucker, Bernie Lynn. But what was the order? How did the pieces fit, and into which months?"
Over long marches he remembers - and these vignettes, full-bodied with taste, sight, sound and sensation, interrupt the story of the squad's quest, or perhaps the quest interrupts them. As Berlin searches for some significance to his life thus far (so young, so very, very young), Paris emerges as some grand, aligning goal. The long road to Paris: an aim. A destination.

Grappling for a clear vision of this, we see countless dramas through his eyes - on the path and before. From the "poof!" that kills Billy Boy with fright, to the mutiny of men in the deep jungle, to the sad sound of a ringing, ringing phone. This is a novel of Vietnam, but moreso it is a novel of the dreams that carried men away from it, the imaginings that gave the lucky few a way to remember.

Going After Cacciato won the National Book Award when it was released in 1978, and with good reason. O'Brien's prose is at once immediate and lighter-than-air. The weight of packs on shoulders, the taste of paddy-water, the sight of the moon on guard-duty -- it's all here, but couched in the rhythm of a poet.
So they wrapped Billy in a plastic poncho, his eyes still squeezed shut to make wrinkles in his cheeks, and they carried him over the meadow to a dried-up paddy, and they threw out yellow smoke for the chopper, and they put him aboard, and then Doc wrapped the boot in a towel and placed it next to Billy, and that was how it happened. The chopper took Billy away. Later, Eddie Lazzutti, who loved to sing, remembered the song, and the jokes started, and Eddie sang where have you gone, Billy Boy, Billy Boy, oh, where have you gone, charming Billy? They sang until dark, marching to the sea.
From the baking heat of southeastern Asia to the dry fear of Afghanistan, to the exhilerating, colour-stained arrival in a big city traced in rain, every description is pungent and real, each character a person who breathes and dies.

Though in its very final pages, Going After Cacciatio stepped away from me, lost in some ironic or profound message, it was up to that point an assured and enchanting work, its humanity like a bracelet that hangs from a swinging wrist. Even with the ending in mind - the montage by Cacciato's apartment, the path that leads to Paris - it remains a moving and significant work, a voice that draws out the things we shared with those men and women in Vietnam: the understanding, the dreams, the quests and the failures.

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