Going After Cacciato
Toward its end, Going After Cacciato quotes from Yeats’s “Meditations in Time of Civil War”—“We had fed the heart on fantasies, / The heart’s grown brutal from the fare.” The words are said in a fantasy-scene, by a character who exists only in another character’s mind, and it seems an apt motto for a novel about private dreaming in the midst of the public disaster of Vietnam. Yeats’s troubled perception that the imagination may be implicated in a reality of violence and terror helps to explain why postwar moods, in fiction and life, are so inevitably moods of disenchantment.
But Going After Cacciato—a strong and convincing novel that deserves its recent National Book Award—goes well beyond mere disillusionment about war and national policy. It is a book about the imagination itself, one which both questions and celebrates that faculty’s way of resisting the destructive powers of immediate experience.
Tim O’Brien considers the conflicting equities of dream and fact in a narrative of three interwoven situations. One concerns the desertion from the Third Squad of Cacciato, an infantryman who walks away from the war to go, he says, to Paris, and his pursuit by a group of his comrades. As they hunt Cacciato through Laos, Burma, India, the Middle East, and all the way to Europe, we soon recognize that the increasingly improbable adventures of Third Squad are being invented by one of its members, Paul Berlin, while he spends a night on guard duty in a seaside observation post in Quang Ngai. And as Berlin tries to sustain and bring to a “proper ending” the story of going after Cacciato, he is also remembering the dreadfully real campaign he has lived through, a campaign that has cost his platoon eight men.
Berlin tries to make what he hopes will be “a fine war story” out of experiences that were in themselves almost unendurable, but there is more than escapism in his conversion of life to art. The pursuit of Cacciato has serious if ambiguous implications. It is the duty of his comrades to follow him and bring him back to the war, it is comradely and humane to try to save him from the dire punishment for desertion, and yet “going after” him could mean not pursuing him but following his lead—it affords them a tentative sense that they too are escaping from a war they all hate and fear, a dim hope that they can have the benefits of desertion without feeling shame or incurring punishment. The real Cacciato was only a dumb kid, an amiable, childlike goof-off who ate too much and immersed himself in pointless games, dribbling a basketball or angling intently in flooded bombcraters where no fish could be. But as the Cacciato of Berlin’s imagination playfully leads them on toward Paris, he takes on interest as a figure of thoughtless, irresponsible innocence that may be the only alternative to an idea of life as warfare …