In 1979, Tim O’Brien won the National Book Award for his superb novel of the Vietnam War, Going After Cacciato. It’s a spare, complex, and startling piece of writing.
Cacciato follows a group of American soldiers, including the main character Paul Berlin, pursuing a deserter through the jungles and rice paddies of Vietnam. Cacciato is the deserter. He is also a baby-faced simpleton who seems to be a master at evasion. On foot, he leads them through Laos, on through Chitagong, Tehren, Athens, all the way to Paris. Along the way the soldiers fall into a subterranean maze, are captured by Iranian secret police and two of the men fall in love.
It’s an absurd, surreal, often violent journey, interspersed with flashbacks to the deaths of the other soldiers in the platoon from earlier fighting. Most of it takes place in the confused confines of Paul Berlin’s mind, as he tries to stay awake through a night watch at some time in the future.
There’s more than a touch of Catch-22 here—there’s even a sort of trial for Berlin that feels pulled directly from Heller—with the narrative circling back to major events, shifts in tone, abrupt violence.
A fabulous novel by a very fine American author.
O’Brien belongs to a rarified group of writers carrying enormous critical acclaim and commercial success. He carries the burden—what a great problem to have!—well. His work is consistent. His lesser novels—In the Lake of the Woods and The Nuclear Age—are still well-written, intriguing. I’ve never regretted reading one of his books. (I cannot say the same about most authors.) O’Brien would go on to write The Things They Carried, one of the finest novel-in-stories ever written, highly influential, beautiful. He’s a great writer to recommend to people who like to read, but stay away from serious books.
Vietnam plays a role in all of his books, and the very fine July, July in a sense picks up Berlin, or a character just like him, as he approaches middle age. His characters are haunted by their actions and inactions, by their participation in such a horrifying spectacle of depravity, by their laughter, murder, indifference.
The key to O’Brien is he’s easy and fun to read, but challenging in his refusal to fully delineate what is real and what is illusory. The narrative is fractured, intense, at times bewildered. Memory, desire, fear, violent soldiering and impossible fantasy intermingle in a labyrinthine narrative that can feel as meandering and formless as a routine patrol. What is real is never clear with O’Brien. In this way he belongs with the post-modernists. He’s often described as an American magical-realist—this is a descriptor that needs to be put to pasture—but this isn’t quite right. He isn’t Vonnegut. He’s writing about the Vietnam War directly; the fantastical elements occur in the different characters’ minds, or to all of them together, in a collective temporary madness. He’s subtle with his oddities.
Of course the war is the thing for O’Brien, Vietnam and the soldiers who fought in it. He served as a foot soldier in Vietnam; his novels taken together serve as a type of epic autobiography. His work contains a seething rage against his war experiences—the whole endeavor deranged people’s moral sense—tucked into little tiny moments. And his time as a soldier explains the essential enigma to his novels. Here’s Paul Berlin meditating on the moral confusion of the war:
“They did not know even the simple things: a sense of victory, or satisfaction, or necessary sacrifice. They did not know the feeling of taking a place and keeping it, securing a village and then raising the flag and calling it a victory. No sense of order or momentum. No front, no rear, no trenches laid out in neat parallels. No Patton rushing for the Rhine, no beachheads to storm and win and hold for the duration. They did not have targets. They did not have a cause. They did not know if it was a war of ideology or economics or hegemony or spite. . . . They did not know the names of most villages. They did not know which villages were critical. They did not know strategies. They did not know the terms of the war, its architecture, the rules of fair play. When they took prisoners, which was rare, they did not know the questions to ask, whether to release a suspect or beat on him. They did not know how to feel. Whether, when seeing a dead Vietnamese, to be happy or sad or relieved; whether, in times of quiet, to be apprehensive or content; whether to engage the enemy or elude him. They did not know how to feel when they saw villages burning. Revenge? Loss? Peace of mind or anguish? . . . They did not know good from evil.”
Fabulous, moving, straight-forward—he has some Hemingway in him, a lot of Heller. His style is concrete and precise, with hallucinogenic flourishes. Curlicues of madness. Staccato bursts of emotional violence.
He’s funny. He has a superior ear for dialogue. Here he has Paul Berlin being interviewed by a three-man panel of officers:
“You an American soldier?”
“Yeah? Then where’d you get such a screwy name?”
“I don’t know, sir.”
“Sheet.” The major looked at the captain in tiger fatigues. “You hear that? This trooper don’t know where he got his own name. You ever promoted somebody who don’t know how he got his own fuckin name?”
“Maybe he forgot,” said the captain in tiger fatigues.
“Could be. Or maybe shell shock or something. Better ask again.”
The major sucked his dentures halfway ot of his mouth, frowned, then let his teeth slide back into place. “Can’t hurt nothin’. Okay, soldier, one more time—where’d you find that name of yours?”
“Inherited it, sir. From my father.”
“You crappin’ me?”
He’s a fascinating writer on nature. I could read his descriptions of Vietnamese landscapes for hours:
The land was luminous. Pink coral and ferric reds, great landfalls of wilderness, and they moved through it for twelve days at a buffalo’s pace. No villages, no people. Only the road.
He’s terrifying—you can get a sense of it from any random page—but he’s also wise:
In the morning the fifty new men were marched to a wooden set of bleachers facing the sea. A small, sad-faced corporal in a black cadre helmet waited until they settled down, looking at the new recruits as if searching for a lost friend in a crowd. Then the corporal sat down in the sand. He turned away and gazed at the sea. He did not speak. Time passed slowly, ten minutes, twenty, but still the sad-faced corporal did not turn or nod or speak. He simply gazed out at the blue sea. Everything was clean. The sea was clean, and the sand and the wind.
They sat in the bleachers for a full hour.
Then at last, the corporal sighed and stood up. He checked his wristwatch. Again he searched the rows of new faces.
“All right,” he said softly. “That completes your first lecture on how to survive this shit. I hope you paid attention.”
1979 was a good year for American fiction. John Irving published his influential—but overrated and unsatisfying—The World According to Garp. Charles Bukowski continued with his poetry of the gutter with Women. Don DeLillo released his superb, and underrated, literary thriller, Running Dog. (It’s also, in a coded and intriguing way, about Vietnam.) Hubert Selby, Jr. published Requiem for a Dream. John Updike, Richard Yates, Gore Vidal all published novels. Cacciato is the best novel of an impressive year.
The blockbuster novel had already arrived. Stephen King, Robert Ludlum, Richard Matheson, Mario Puzo all published books.
Around the world, the British continued their post, post-war boom: Ian McEwan, Alice Munro, Ismael Kadare, Gunter Grass, Graham Greene, Anthony Burgess, Beryl Bainbridge, Kingsley Amis and Martin Amis all published novels.
And yes, there are few women on the above list, a continuing problem, and few minority authors, too.
Ambiguity, violence; a summation of the absurdities of the Cold War; the ragged edges of American military power; imperialism, Orientalism, racism—the Vietnam War affected everyone from Muhammad Ali to Oliver Stone. Yet we still argue over the root causes, even the ultimate result, of this most agonizing and divisive of American wars.
Films, comics, music—the Vietnam War is one of the most important events in our recent history. And yet, very few people can agree on anything about it.
Yet the ambiguity, the pastoral beauty of the country, the horrendous destruction of the U.S. bombing campaigns, and yes, the terrorism, the odd silence of the Viet-Cong—the war brings the best out of our writers because of the very things that make it so difficult to understand. The uncertainty gives the subject a mysterious power.
The Vietnam War has many fine books about it, including Michael Herr’s stunning book of reportage, Dispatches. Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke—and it’s a fucking miracle of a book, perhaps his best—is about Vietnam. Robert Stone’s white-knuckle harrowing The Dog Soldiers is about Vietnam; it’s his best book. Stephen Wright’s bizarre psycho-fantasia, Meditations in Green, is about Vietnam; it’s his best book, too. Halberstam’s best (non-fiction) book, The Best and the Brightest, is about how we ended up fighting over there. Lenny Bruce’s best bits involved Vietnam. Graham Greene’s The Quiet American is one of his finest works. And, yes, it’s about U.S. involvement in Vietnam, too.
Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War—one of the finest science fiction novels ever written—is about Vietnam. And, it’s his best book, too.
The Punisher was a Vietnam veteran.
John Rambo was a Vietnam veteran.
James Crumley’s detectives are all haunted by the war. Ditto for most of the detective fiction from the 1970s.
And so we circle back to O’Brien, the best novelist of Vietnam, the writer closest to its horror and stink. Other writers fought in Vietnam, but O’Brien is the most haunted by it.
Going After Cacciato, and The Things They Carried, are much more than war novels. They stand as lyrical expressions of a singular American writer.
 If you haven’t read “The Trial of Clevinger,” from Catch-22, you’re missing one of the great comedic set pieces in American fiction.
 It also has the distinction of being the one book I’ve lent out three different times, and each time the other person kept it.
 A pretty good description of the war.