Pros: high quality of prose, some powerful stuff
Cons: scenes beyond SE Asia
Three "Vietnam novels" have received the National Book Award: Larry Heinemann's Paco's Story (1987), Robert Stone's Dog Soldiers (1975), and Tim O'Brien's Going After Cacciato (1979). O'Brien's is the one that is mostly (or only--see below) set in Vietnam. The other two have scenes of Vietnam combat, but focus on soldiers who survived to return home, however maimed in mind and body they are. Going After Cacciato has been hailed as The Great (American) Vietnam Novel.
There is powerful stuff about demoralization and guerrilla warfare in O'Brien's novel, but as in Heinemann's, it is in flashback. (For going from enlistment through atrocities in Vietnam and back home, Philip Caputo's memoir A Rumor of War is the best book I've read.) Private Cacciato is walking from away more than the attrition his squad has experienced, though I don't feel that I can specify what else without being guilty of plot-spoiling.
One evening (at the start of the book, a seeming infinity of dread and dismemberment into the platoon's tour of duty in Vietnam) Private Cacciato, regarded as being as "dumb as a bullet" by his comrades-in-arms, sets off on foot for Paris-8000 miles to the northwest... but first literally "over the hill" in the Vietnam highlands.
A patrol of young infantryman commanded by a grizzled veteran of the Korean War lieutenant (Corson) sets off in pursuit. It may be that they shoot Pvt. Cacciato before he gets very far (so that the whole book takes place in Vietnam with Spec-4 Paul Berlin imagining a longer flight under the cover of pursuing a deserter all the way to Paris, or it may be O'Brien imagining the long-distance chase as the reality of the novel. Moreover, it may be that Pvt. Cacciato is fleeing his mates and involvement in what they have done or that he is taking them with him toward the City of Light.
"Nothing is real, nothing to get hung about" (lines from the Beatles' "Strawberry Fields (Forever)") is a good summation of the hallucinatory side of the late-1960s and figuring out the line between empirical reality and hallucinations (paranoid or other) is a recurrent problem recalled in memoirs of the war in Vietnam as well as in fiction (Heinemann's Paco addresses ghosts, for instance, after taking a job as a short-order cook in a flat Texas town).
If the forward march of the novel may be imaginary (within the fiction's representation of a possible world), the hallucinatory flashbacks to losing one after another member of the squad may also be, including, most importantly, the loss of the previous lieutenant (the by-the-book Sidney Martin, whom the men regard as unnecessarily increasing the risk of being sent home in pieces).
"To call Going After Cacciato a novel about war is like calling Moby Dick a novel about whales," is a blurb (from Thomas Edwards from the New York Times quoted on the back cover. Aside from the title character, Moby Dick, being a whale, there is very little in Melville's novel not related to whaling--and the maniacal pursuit by Captain Ahab of one whale in particular. Without a war going badly in which comrade after comrade dying from booby-trap mines, and the loss of confidence (at the very least) of the men in their commander (and up the chain of command), the protagonist (everyman soldier Paul Berlin) and Pvt. Cacciato would not be in the highland Vietnam jungle going crazy. Cacciato would have a dead-end job in these United States, and Paul Berlin would be getting ahead--and the lieutenant whose war was Korea (he himself says) would have retired and not have dysentery, and so on.
There is much absurdist (black) humor, including Pvt. Cacciato trying to fish in a bomb crater that has filled with rain. (Catching nothing does not dissuade him—which may not be a metaphor for much else that the US military did in Vietnam, or a puddle may just be a puddle, even one made by a bomb...)
O'Brien provides grist for analytic mills. It is not any more hallucinatory than other Vietnam books, but provides puzzles of narration and ontology of the sort that please literary academics (many are directly addressed in the metafiction of The Things They Carried, a 1990 collection of stories and reflections on storytelling). Although I would like to join the ranks of those who regard the book under review by a fellow Minnesota-native as the best, I cannot. I think that it overly contrived and that the power of the flashbacks is undercut by the frivolity of the trip across Eurasia (there are scenes in Laos or Thailand, India, Iran, Yugoslavia, Greece, and France, with narrative silence about intermediate other steps).
I had read some of the O'Brien Vietnam stories collected in The Things They Carried, but not his memoir (If I Die in a Combat Zone) or other novels (I know that In the Lake of the Woods also has major flashbacks to the terrors of Vietnam), so don't know whether it that he is unable to mix the piquant ingredients of a book, or only produced something of a mishmash of ingredients in Going After Cacciato. For me, the first quarter or third of the novel worked, but too much after that was forced (and in some instances magical unrealism). I also thought that the characters in the other two NBA-winning "Vietnam novels" (and in the memoirs of Philip Caputo and Michael Herr that I recently reread) are more rounded, less types than those in Going After Cacciato. And I don't like an ending of "Maybe so"! I don't need every "i" dotted and "t" crossed, but I don't like being left in the mire either.
One thing no one will accuse the book of being is "a light-hearted adventure story." (Another is a defense either of US engagement in Vietnam or of the tactics of its military commanders.)
This is not to say that Going After Cacciato is a bad book or not worth reading, but I definitely do not go along with viewing it as the best of the Vietnam novels written by Americans. As I've said, there are many powerful scenes and images in the book. And perhaps, like Paul Berlin, I am insufficiently able to take the good advice he received from his father: "Ignore the bad stuff, look for the good." I see both.
© 2007, Stephen O. Murray
*In addition to North Vietnamese veterans Bao Ninh's The Sorrow of War and Duong Thu Thuong's Novel Without a Name, my ongoing, intermittent "re-reading Vietnam" examination has included the memoirs by Michael Herr (Dispatches), Philip Caputo (A Rumor of War), and Robert Stone (Prime Green; Larry Heinemann's book on revisiting Vietnam (Black Virgin Mountain) and his novels (Close Quarters and Paco's Story). I have written about the all-too-pertinent second volume of the Library of America Reporting Vietnam and Neil Jamiesen's Understanding Vietnam. More are on the shelf, waiting patiently. Not to mention the books I've reviewed dealing with the "collarteral damage" on Cambodians and Laotians.