Going After Cacciato – Tim O’Brien, 1979
Tim O’Brien’s acclaimed Vietnam novel traces a squad whose task it is to retrieve the footloose Cacciato, a young grunt who’s seemingly just wandered off cross country with the aim of making it to Paris. This novel is pretty dreamlike in places, but really has some terrific descriptions of the warscape of Vietnam as the characters from Cacciato’s squad head on after him.
In this surprisingly literary read, the ever shifting and fleeting figure of Cacciato takes on a symbolic and dreamlike quality for the characters in an often fantastical story that reminded me of Alice in Wonderland. But contrasted with all the dreamlike poetic descriptions and psychedelic imaginings of the downtrodden GIs there is also a gritty realism here. The descriptions of tripwires, firing Chinooks and popping rounds through the bush remind you of the fact that this book was written by a man who lived it all.
Through all the conversations and encounters the characters go through, O’ Brien manages to create a similar kind of feeling to that captured in Dispatches by Michael Herr. There is a kind of shapeshifting chaos to this novel where the writing might drift between someone’s memories, a snatched piece of action and a philosophical conversation between officers.
Perhaps this is O’Brien’s way of relaying the whole experience of Vietnam to the reader…not as a linear and fact-bound account but rather a shifting and colourful assault of the senses, where stereotypical US GIs with their brash talk and foul language mix in with awe-inspiring landscapes, burning skies and oppressive jungle.
Although I’d recommend this book to anyone who’s a fan of literature, symbolism and poetry, it really wasn’t my thing, apologies, Mr O’Brien. I much preferred If I Die in a Combat Zone, where O’Brien goes through his Nam experience in a much more autobiographical and matter of fact way.
As I say, I’d still recommend Going After Cacciato (affl) as a good Vietnam book as it contains plenty of highly evocative descriptions of troops at war in the Nam environment, but just remember this is fiction, and literary stuff at that. Fans of symbolism, metaphor and poetry should definitely check it out.