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:
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.
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.
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 has been a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome (Italy), and a Visiting Fellow at Hong Kong’s CityU. He has a B.A. in English, an M.Ed. in Higher Education Leadership (honors), an M.A. in Literature (honors), and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing & Fiction. He was born in Texas in 1979.
He’s the author of several short stories and novels. His works include A Father’s Son (2005), The New America: A Collection (2007), Vanity of Vanities (2011), A Time to Love in Tehran (2015), and forthcoming: Conquergood & the Center of the Intelligible Mystery of Being; Little Hometown, America: A Look Back; A Time to Forget in East Berlin; and, The Endless Endeavor of Excellence.
You can also follow the author on Facebook @ cg.fewston – where he has 400,000+ followers