“The point is that war is war no matter how it is perceived. War has its own reality. War kills and maims and rips up the land and makes orphans and widows. These are the things of war. Any war.”
(from Going After Cacciato, page 197)
Quick summary: Going After Cacciato, winner of the 1979 National Book Award, is one of the most unique war novels I’ve ever read. Tim O’Brien tells the story of a soldier during the Vietnam War who simply decides to leave the war and walk from the jungle all the way to Paris. The novel is told through the point of view of Paul Berlin, one of the soldiers who sets off on the mission to find Cacciato. O’Brien plays with the novel’s timeline, so readers alternate between following Paul Berlin on the journey to fetch Cacciato, going back in time to when Paul Berlin first joined the war and witnessing the horrifying things he saw during those months before Cacciato left the war, and moving forward in time to an observation post on the sea as Paul Berlin spends the long night contemplating what happened with Cacciato.
Why I wanted to read it: I’m a huge fan of Tim O’Brien. His writing is fantastic and thought-provoking. The Things They Carried is one of my all-time favorite books, and I’d let Going After Cacciato sit unread on my shelf for too long.
What I liked: I thought the shifts back and forth in time were clever, allowing the layers of detail about the various soldiers and the mission from Quang Ngai to Paris to be pulled back one by one. I also enjoyed the element of fantasy in this novel and how O’Brien kept me guessing about the events of the story until the very end. His writing always packs a punch, with vivid imagery that makes you feel like you are wading through the paddies or sweating through the jungles or marching the dusty trails alongside the characters. He manages to balance weighty discussions about war and its purpose with the reality of what the soldiers endured on a daily basis.
What I disliked: At first, the time shifts were jarring, but after a few chapters, I understood the structure of the novel and was immersed in the story. This definitely is a novel where readers just have to go with the flow and hang on for the ride without knowing what to expect.
Final thoughts: While I didn’t love Going After Cacciato as much as The Things They Carried, I am able to appreciate it as a brilliant war novel. O’Brien explores the blurred boundaries between true and fictional war stories in The Things They Carried, and in Going After Cacciato, he focuses on the line between reality and fantasy. Reading about what these soldiers endured makes it easy to believe that they would want to simply walk away from it all. Going After Cacciato focuses on the evolution of a soldier, the lessons he learns over time, the fear he fights to control, and the coping mechanisms that become necessary to simply survive another day.
Disclosure: Going After Cacciato is from my personal library.
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