Going After Cacciato is regarded by many as one of the greatest war novels ever written, and it certainly lived up to expectations. I’m no expert on war literature, but I would say it might be the finest literary work to emerge from the Vietnam war. Tim O’Brien has created a beautiful, enduring, and important book that deserves to be read by anyone interested in war, fiction, or just great literature.
The plot is as follows: One day a young soldier named Cacciato decides he’s had enough of this war, and sets out for Paris on foot. A group of fellow soldiers go after him. The story follows them on their absurd journey through Vietnam and beyond. The book takes on a hallucinatory feel, often jumping between timelines, and making you question the reality of the story. This blend of fantasy and reality heightens the story, making it that much more fun to read.
The book is at times horrifying, humorous, shocking, fantastical, and deeply sad, the whole time underscored by O’Brien’s strong, crisp prose. The narrative moves along briskly and engrossingly, following the characters and the crazy things they encounter on their wild chase such as the Water Buffalo they lose falling down an Alice in Wonderland like hole, or the beheading they witness in Tehran . O’Brien beautifully explores the different men, their lives, fears, and motivations, and on the deeper level, the motivation for war itself, and the purpose these men are actually serving.
It is evident that O’Brien, a foot soldier in Vietnam, knows his material very well. Drawing from personal knowledge and a rich imagination, O’Brien constructs a vivid, haunting and beautiful portrait of war, and soldiers. Combining the gritty realism and horrors of war, with the surrealism of this story, O’Brien has crafted not just one of the greatest war novels, one the greatest novels period.