Going After Cacciato

After writing about Tim O’Brien’s book The Things They Carried, an acquaintance recommended that I also check out another of O’Brien’s novels, Going After Cacciato. That sounded like a good idea to me, so I got a copy of the audiobook edition expecting another war novel along the lines of The Things They Carried.

I was about half-right. It’s partly a war novel, and partly a modern version of Around the World in Eighty Days. Once again, we follow a company of soldiers in the Vietnam War, and roughly half the chapters, interspersed between those about the main narrative, are anecdotes about protagonist Paul Berlin’s experience as a new soldier, much like The Things They Carried. The other half, and the primary narrative of the book, is about one member of the company, Cacciato, going AWOL. Cacciato seems to be not quite retarded, but certainly not too bright, either, and he’s decided to leave the war for Paris. He’s not a coward or a pacifist or anything like that, it’s just that he’s apparently not clever enough to see the consequences of what is, in fact, desertion, and the impossibility of traveling all the way from Vietnam overland to France.

I won’t spoil the novel here by revealing how far he and the rest of the company go in chasing after him, except that it’s far enough that while reading it I sometimes had a hard time suspending disbelief. However, there is an explanation for the less plausible moments at the end of the work.

Cacciato’s themes and style are basically a less-developed version of The Things They Carried, which isn’t surprising, perhaps, since O’Brien wrote Cacciato first. In fact, the parts directly concerning the war feel like a beta version of his later work. He includes similar reflections on why men fight, on reputation and cowardice, how soldiers cope with the stress and trauma inherent in combat, and so on. In fact, the short review of much of Cacciato is that it’s “The Things They Carried but not as good.” Still good enough to be worth reading, but not an essential as O’Brien’s later book is.

Now, I mentioned that I listened to the audiobook version of this, which is narrated by Kevin Collins. Overall, the narration is good, but Collins reads the whole thing in this breathless voice which is, to be fair, appropriate for the personality of Paul Berlin, but by the one-hour mark I wanted to tell him to sit down a moment and catch his breath before continuing. Also, O’Brien uses a realistic style of dialogue, which means people repeat themselves, speak past each other, use incomplete sentences, and so on. That’s usually all fine, but here it was overdone to the point of tediousness, and it felt even more tedious because of the breathless narration.

I’ll leave it there for now. I recommend reading The Things They Carried first, and if you enjoy that then go ahead and read Cacciato as well. Both books are good enough that I can certainly see checking out more of O’Brien’s work in the future.