Tim O’Brien’s “Going After Cacciato,” like many of his other books including his most famous novel “The Things They Carried,” takes place to the backdrop of the Vietnam War. The book mixes main character Paul Berlin’s memories of the war with Berlin’s and fellow soldiers unreal trek to Paris in pursuit of a deserter, Cacciato.
The book is far more than a straightforward story, however, so a simple plot summary doesn’t do it justice. The novel I would most readily compare it to is “Catch-22.” Perhaps it reveals how few war based novels I’ve read by being so ready to lump these two books together, but I feel there are some noticeable similarities beyond the theme of war. Both make some use of chronologically jumbled flashbacks, have dark humor, and express dissatisfaction with war. The manifestation of this dissatisfaction is where the two books diverge. While in “Catch-22” Yossarian outright rejects the war and openly tries to escape it, the characters in “Going After Cacciato” are much less decisive. They cling to the idea they are carrying out their mission of capturing Cacciato despite their march to find him gradually lapsing into tourism. The lack of decision and definition is a reoccurring theme in this book. Berlin straddles the line between desertion and mission refusing to commit to either. Daydreams and reality rub shoulders increasing the confusion. But confusion is the point: the confusion of the Vietnam War, the confusion of the era, perhaps even the confusion of youth. In all this confusion the only thing that exists are possibilities but Berlin’s reluctance to capitalize on these give even what normally stand as hopeful beacons a gloom.
Or maybe I’m just spouting meaningless drivel. Regardless, I enjoyed “Going After Cacciato.” It’s the type of book you can examine and reexamine but doesn’t sacrifice an engaging narrative either. The picture of soldiers on the front cover might scare some potential readers away but even those, like myself, who aren’t war buffs should give this novel a try, because after all, as the mysteriously unaccredited quote on the back of the book said, “To call ‘Going After Cacciato’ a novel about war is like calling ‘Moby-Dick’ a novel about whales.”