My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Characters, fascinating yet believable, and a story that transforms reality into a world where the reader can endure a terrible truth and enjoy a wonderful beauty and finish the book knowing he/she was always in the right are two aspects of the novel the writer must take into consideration. Tim O’Brien, in Going After Cacciato, is one such writer, who must have taken his own experiences from the Vietnam War, transforming them into a story readers can further understand more specifically about the war, the soldiers, and the awful truths that often lay hidden during such horrendous times.
Very great novels need great characters; and in O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato there is no short supply of memorable characters. Without unforgettable characters a book becomes easily closed.
“Real-life characters do sometimes hold their own in fiction,” writes John Gardner, in The Art of Fiction, “but only those, loved or hated, whom the writer has transformed in his own mind, or through the process of writing, to imaginary beings” (127). Cacciato, Paul Berlin, and Sarkin Aung Wan are just some of the characters that stand out in O’Brien’s 1979 National Book Award winning novel.
Although Cacciato does not appear for most of the novel directly, he is often viewed from a distance or spoken of among the other soldiers. O’Brien, however, does provide a glimpse into this rogue soldier who has decided to go AWOL and walk to Paris from Vietnam. In one scene that describes a backstory, Paul Berlin is chatting with an unknown character; and by the end of the chapter the reader comes to be told directly that this man is Cacciato:
The boy laughed a little, very quietly, chewing on his gum. Then he twisted the cap off a canteen and took a swallow and handed it through the dark…
The voice was high, a child’s voice, and there was no fear in it. A big blue baby. A genie’s voice…
It was impossible to make out the soldier’s face. It was a huge face, almost perfectly round…
Then in the dark beside him the boy began to whistle. There was no melody…
The boy laughed. His teeth were big and even white…
He saw the face then, clearly, for the first time…
The boy gave [Paul] a stick of gum. It was black Jack, the precious stuff. “You’ll do fine,” Cacciato said. “You will. You got a terrific sense of humor” (O’Brien 212-218).
Cacciato is described in such terms as to provoke innocence and a larger than life appeal: “big blue baby” and “genie’s voice.” And just as Paul Berlin sees Cacciato for the first time in the book, so does the reader.
Paul Berlin and Sarkin Aung Wan, a Cambodian refugee, are lovers in the novel and become a powerful image, one not easily lost. By the end of the novel, the lovers have made it to Paris and found an apartment to live out their days in peace. Paul Berlin, however, chooses to stay with his fellow soldiers rather than abandon them as Cacciato has done. In the final scene between the two, O’Brien places the lovers face to face in a conference room to have their final say:
Full spotlight: Sarkin Aung Wan and Paul Berlin stand, stack their papers, then wait. They do not look at each other. There is no true negotiation. There is only the statement of positions.
Footsteps click in the great conference hall. The lieutenant enters. He wears his helmet and rucksack. He shakes hands with Paul Berlin; they exchange a few quiet words. The old man then crosses to Sarkin Aung Wan. He offers his arm, she takes it, and they move away. A moment later Paul Berlin leaves by a separate exit (O’Brien 321).
Although the lovers do not end up with one another, O’Brien has fully shaped them into their own beings, unique and far from the control of the writer; the end of the relationship between Paul Berlin and Sarkin Aung Wan can be viewed as a natural outcome, a conclusion the reader can share in and accept as true. Noah Lukeman writes in The First Five Pages that “more can be said by one single action than by a character’s delivering an entire monologue” (107). O’Brien has brought his characters to life, set them free, and allowed them to develop into people the reader can truly relate to.
Much like having strong and vivid characters in a novel, the writer must also consider chasing a story from the imagination into the fictitious world the reader can believe as real. “Art does not imitate reality,” John Gardner explains, “but creates a new reality” (131). O’Brien is one master storyteller who is able to reshape the Vietnam War into a “new reality.” Toward the end of the novel, the soldiers have made it to the outskirts of Paris and Paul Berlin describes what he sees:
Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France
Notre Dame Cathedral in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
Far off, buried in the thunderhead, he sees for an instant the twin towers of Notre-Dame. He sees a gargoyle’s wild eyes. The gargoyle is torn from its mount, wings flapping, and it flies—it does! Bat wings, screeching, caught up in the acceleration, picked up and flying. The thunderhead scoops up whole pieces of Paris: a great stone bridge and a bus and a cabbage from a lady’s handbag (O’Brien 291).
No such thing could ever really happen in reality; O’Brien, however, weaves the imagination into such concrete details that the above scene produces a “new reality” and one the reader may accept as true, as being what it must be, as what it is because it can never be anything else.
Young Tim O’Brien
O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato is a masterful work of art that incorporates a powerful story brought to life and vivid characters that stand out and above the norm. Every writer should take a lesson from O’Brien in how to shape fictitious characters until they become “real” and how to form an imagined world into a “new reality.” To do so, to envision and enliven a story with such craft techniques, creating larger than life characters and a believable world, is to understand why stories are to be told.
Other Books to Consider:
Gardner, John. The Art of Fiction (1984). New York: Vintage Books, 1991. Print.
Lukeman, Noah. The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile. New York: Fireside, 2000. Print.
Maass, Donald. Writing the Breakout Novel. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 2001. Print.
O’Brien, Tim. Going After Cacciato (1978). New York: Broadway Books, 1999. Print.
CG FEWSTON is an American novelist who is a member of AWP, a member of Americans for the Arts, and a professional member and advocate of the PEN American Center, advocating for the freedom of expression around the world.
CG FEWSTON has travelled across continents and visited such places as Mexico, the island of Guam, Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Macau, Viet Nam, Cambodia, Singapore, Thailand, Taipei and Beitou in Taiwan, Bali in Indonesia, and Guilin and Shenzhen and Beijing in China. He also enjoys studying and learning French, Vietnamese, Cantonese and Mandarin.
CG FEWSTON earned an M.Ed. in Higher Education Leadership and Administration (honors), an M.A. in Literature (honors) from Stony Brook University, and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing and Fiction from Southern New Hampshire University, where he had the chance to work with wonderful and talented novelists like Richard Adams Carey (author of In the Evil Day, October 2015; and, The Philosopher Fish, 2006) and Jessica Anthony (author of Chopsticks, 2012; and, The Convalescent, 2010) as well as New York Times Best-Selling novelists Matt Bondurant (author of The Night Swimmer, 2012; and, The Wettest County in the World, 2009, made famous in the movie Lawless, 2012) and Wiley Cash (author of A Land More Kind Than Home, 2013; and, This Dark Road to Mercy, 2014).
Among many others, CG FEWSTON’S stories, photographs and essays have appeared in Sediments Literary–Arts Journal, Bohemia, Ginosko Literary Journal, GNU Journal (“Hills Like Giant Elephants”), Tendril Literary Magazine, Prachya Review (“The One Who Had It All”), Driftwood Press, The Missing Slate Literary Magazine (“Darwin Mother”), Gravel Literary Journal, Foliate Oak Magazine, The Writer’s Drawer, Moonlit Road, Nature Writing, and Travelmag: The Independent Spirit; and for several years he was a contributor to Vietnam’s national premier English newspaper, Tuoi Tre, “The Youth Newspaper.”
You can read more about CG FEWSTON and his writing at
A TIME TO LOVE IN TEHRAN won GOLD for Literary Classics’ 2015 best book in the category under ”Special Interest” for “Gender Specific – Female Audience”…
Finalist in the 2015 Chatelaine Awards for Romantic Fiction…
Finalist in the 2015 Mystery & Mayhem Novel Writing Contest…
Praise for A TIME TO LOVE IN TEHRAN:
“Fewston delivers an atmospheric and evocative thriller in which an American government secret agent must navigate fluid allegiances and murky principles in 1970s Tehran… A cerebral, fast-paced thriller.”
“A TIME TO LOVE IN TEHRAN is a thrilling adventure which takes place in pre-revolutionary Tehran. Author CG FEWSTON provides a unique glimpse into this important historical city and its rich culture during a pivotal time in its storied past. This book is so much more than a love story. Skillfully paired with a suspenseful tale of espionage, A TIME TO LOVE IN TEHRAN is a riveting study of humanity. Replete with turns & twists and a powerful finish, FEWSTON has intimately woven a tale which creates vivid pictures of the people and places in this extraordinary novel.”
CG FEWSTON‘s new novel,
A TIME TO LOVE IN TEHRAN, was published on April 2, 2015 —
10 years to the day of the publication
of his first novella, A FATHER’S SON (April 2, 2005)
“Thus one skilled at giving rise to the extraordinary
is as boundless as Heaven and Earth,
as inexhaustible as the Yellow River and the ocean.
Ending and beginning again,
like the sun and moon. Dying and then being born,
like the four seasons.”
found in Sources of Chinese Tradition, p 5