Thursday, 21 November 2019

Going After Cacciato

Finished October 27
Going After Cacciato by Tim O'Brien

This is a classic Vietnam war novel, winning the National Book Award for Fiction in 1979. I've had it on my shelf for quite a while and finally determined to read it this year. I'm not usually a big fan of magic realism, but this book really made it work for me.
The narrator here is Paul Berlin, a young man in good physical condition and with little life experience, like many of the young men that fought in this war. Cacciato always seemed a little removed from the others, almost a kid, but placid, not a whiner. As the book begins, he has walked away from his unit heading west, saying that he'd had enough of the war and he was walking to Paris. The idea is outlandish, and yet somehow appealing. It is eight thousand and six hundred miles. The guy in charge, Lieutenant Corson determines that a group of men closest to Cacciato will follow and bring him back, including the Lieutenant himself. But he's not really the leader here.
The personalities of the men come alive: Doc Peret, the medic for the unit and the leader for much of time; Stink Harris, the giggler who goes off with all guns blazing; Eddie Lazzutti, an indistinct figure; Oscar Johnson the black man who claims to be from Detroit, but seems like he is from Maine; the Lieutenant, who often seems lose, unsure, and unwell; and Harold Murphy, the voice of reason.
We also see the men that have already either died or been injured and sent back either home or to mend for a while. Guys like Billy Boy Watkins who died of fright his first day in battle, Frenchie Tucker who was shot; Bernie Lynn and Lieutenant Sidney Martin who died in tunnels; all of which we are told on the first page, although we learn more of their stories as the book unfolds. And others whose stories get told later: Ready Mix, Rudy Chassler, Pederson, Vaught, Ben Nystrom, and Buff.
There is also a young Vietnamese girl Sarkin Aung Wan, who was traveling away from Saigon with her elderly aunts, hoping to escape the war. She has knowledge and skills that help them, and she too wants to go to Paris, but not for Cacciato, for herself. She wants to make a new home.
Interspersed with the tale of the chase are Paul's reminiscences of his early days in the war, of the men who are no longer with them, of his vigil overnight in a watchtower near the ocean.
What is real and what isn't? Where are these men? What do they see? What is their purpose?
An utterly fascinating tale.

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