Going After Cacciato
By Tim O’Brien
Original Publisher: Doubleday
Current Publisher: Broadway Books (Random House)
Marie Myung-Ok Lee writes:
Growing up in a tiny Minnesota mining town, I had pretty catholic reading tastes. My English teacher (also the varsity baseball coach) wasn’t much help, so I invariably ended up picking books randomly from the library shelves and at garage sales, reading Tess of the D’Urbervilles alongside Valley of the Dolls.
When I stumbled across a mass-market copy of Going After Cacciato, I almost didn’t read it; a weak yellowish cover of a soldier in a jungle made it look like a pulpy war-action novel, but a skim of the first page immediately sucked me in. The book, for a budding writer, blew open a door in my mind that I didn’t even know was there. In school, my recent selection of The Bell Jar for a book report had already been considered strange (the teacher had never heard of it), and here was this novel where I kept having to pause and say to myself Is this true? Can things really work this way? I felt strangely complicit in this reading journey, as if the author was getting away with something he shouldn’t. The seemingly fanciful tale of a foot soldier in the midst of a war perambulating toward Paris (why not?) mixed with the hyper-realistic experiences of his platoon--whether to obey orders to search possibly booby-trapped tunnels, vivid reminiscences of bloody ways their buddies have died—followed by a strange, almost angelic appearance of the young Vietnamese woman. This novel brought so much movement to the stationary act of reading, I would have held onto my hat if I had one. Suddenly, there was the whole world of possibility that narrative (the way we were being taught from our brown-paper-bag-covered College Prep English textbook) didn’t have to be one way.
After learning that the author also grew up in smalltown Minnesota, I grew even more curious about his work—and became more baffled by it: was The Things They Carried a novel? A short story collection? And the author even used his own name; so what parts of it were “true”?
Rereading Going After Cacciato, if I let go of the accretions of context and jargon (“magical realism”) that can be more limiting than illuminating, I can recapture the confused enjoyment of encountering it as a teen, see it as a pure expression of what the author sees. That is, the entire novel was true.
Marie Myung-Ok Lee’s most recent novel is Somebody’s Daughter. She was a National Book Award judge in 2004.
Liz Rosenberg writes:
Tim O’Brien, when I met him in the mid 1970s, was an angry young writer. For good reason. He was writing beautiful books, important books, and they were, if not ignored, then surely not taken as seriously as he knew they deserved to be. I have a clear image of his pointed, angry, handsome little face—as if it had been sharpened on the blade of his own hunger. He was an assistant teacher at Breadloaf to my first husband, the late novelist John Gardner. John’s generosity to other writers was contagious; I felt about Tim O’Brien as I did about John Irving and Ron Hansen, as if they were cousins one wanted desperately to succeed. And one after another, they did, surpassing anything imagined.
Going After Cacciato was a breakthrough book not only for O’Brien, but for American literature, the first howl of the Vietnam Vet hurling through the public’s disdain. It is that rare gem, a work of American magical realism. Vietnam looms fantastical—twisted, beautiful, deadly. The book begins “It was a bad time” followed by a long list of the dead. Magical realism generally arises from a society in massive disorder and derangement. It sparkles through imposed silences of dictatorships, and its flowers grow out of the mouths of the murdered. The fairy tale in any form warns us of the presence of immense danger—the truth cannot be told straight out, but must rise up, as the Bible says, “from out of the earth.” Cacciato’s landscape is like a Goya painting, half dream, half nightmare. The novel combines elements of mystery, adventure, fairy tale, history—what John Gardner called “mutt fiction.” It begins with one soldier, Cacciato, going AWOL, determined to walk 8,600 miles from Vietnam to Paris—out of a bad fairy tale into a good one.
"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.”
The voice is as if Hemingway had leaned down and whispered directly into O’Brien’s ear his famous dictum, “Write the truest thing you know.” I admire and often teach If I Die in a Combat Zone and The Things They Carried, but it is Going After Cacciato I love most, and here that he plays most freely in the wild fields of fiction.
Liz Rosenberg is the author of the new novel, Home Repair,from HarperCollins. She is also an award-winning poet and children's book author who served twice as a judge for the National Book Awards.
Bruce Weigl writes:
Going After Going After Cacciato
This happened: I was in graduate school in Utah, surrounded by the Uinta and the Wasatch mountains that in the failing light of dusk reminded me of the central highlands of Viet Nam. I was tangled up completely in my Ph.D. studies that included three major figures covering three centuries, trying to read a book a day to make up for the enormous gap in my education, trying to fit in. At the same time the mountains called to me. Some spirits from the war had followed me all the way to Utah so I knew I couldn’t escape them. I came to understand that it was my responsibility to tell their stories. There were more than a few of us who felt the same sway back then. I learned a great deal in graduate school, blessed as I was with compassionate and even sometimes brilliant teachers, but I didn’t learn how to find a shape for my experiences in war; how to render those experiences in such a way that they might rise above history and fact and in the end tell a more honest version of who we are at our best and at our worst.
Then Cacciato leaves, and many of us follow him even though we understand that things would never be the same again. Tim O’Brien opened a door for the rest of us to walk through by illustrating how it was possible to tell deeper truths about war and war’s horrible and lasting consequences by allowing the imagination the power to construct the dynamics of the story and to fill in the gaps of memory. When I stepped through that door, I was struck with the enormous possibilities at hand in terms of how I could tell the stories of those spirits who wouldn’t leave me alone and almost simultaneously struck by a deep and abiding fear that I might not be up to the task. When Tim O’Brien allows Cacciato to walk away from his unit, he gives all of us who fought permission to walk away from the terrible literalness of war, freeing up the kind of stories we most needed to hear. For that I will always be grateful.
Bruce Weigl was chair of the National Book Awards Poetry panel in 2003. His most recent book of poems is Declension in the Village of Chung Luong.
Fiction Finalists that Year:
- John Cheever for The Stories of John Cheever
- John Irving for The World According to Garp
- Diane Johnson for Lying Low
- David Plante for The Family
Fiction Judges that Year: Alison Lurie, Mary Lee Settle, Wallace Stegner
The Year in Literature:
- The Stories of John Cheever by John Cheever won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
- Odysseus Elytis won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
- Tim O’Brien mainly writes about his experiences as an infantry foot soldier during the Vietnam War. Upon completing his tour of duty, O'Brien went on to graduate school at Harvard University and received an internship at the Washington Post.
- His writing career truly began in 1973 with the release of his first book, If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home. In this memoir, O'Brien writes: "Can the foot soldier teach anything important about war, merely for having been there? I think not. He can tell war stories."
Tim O'Brien's Website
Tim O'Brien Papers and Writers Reflect
at Harry Ransom Center
The University of Texas at Austin
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