What if they gave a war and nobody came? So read a poster found on countless dorm walls in the Vietnam era, when so many students were working on ways to keep from showing up. Tim O’Brien was not one of them. He was drafted soon after graduating from college in 1968, was shipped off to combat, logged his time, and came back with another take on that question: what if the soldiers just quit and went home—or, as a soldier puts it in his third novel, Going After Cacciato, “Why not pack it up, sir? Head back and call it a bummer.”

So it is that, on a rainy fall day in late 1968, after the horrors of Tet, after several members of his platoon have died, one of them simply scared to death on the battlefield, a moon-faced 17-year-old draftee decides he’s had enough: “In October, near the end of the war, Cacciato left the war.”

Left it, indeed, for Cacciato is now heading, on foot, to Paris, Gay Paree. Though supposedly dumb as a stump—beg pardon, “dumb as a month-old oyster fart,” as one of the members of 3rd Squad, 1st Platoon, Alpha Company says—Cacciato has done his homework. From the rainforest ridgeline where his company is bivouacked, he’s 8,600 statute miles from his target, he reckons, and all he has to do is bushwhack his way across Asia and Europe to get there.

Plump and decidedly unstately, Cacciato makes a fine quarry, a white whale against a green, then brown, then green landscape. A squadmate, a young man named Paul Berlin whose chief occupation is trying to remember “tricks for making time move” so that his awful time in Vietnam comes to an end, is put to work chasing after the kid, along with other soldiers, led by a neurasthenic lieutenant. They fire a few rounds at Cacciato, stumble after him, blunder into tunnels and rice paddies and deserts, and try to keep from freaking out—but when they do, their medic, “Doc” Peret, is there to dispense his ubiquitous M&Ms, which seem to work as well as any medication.

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The hunt for Cacciato affords time for each character to unfold, even as the yarn becomes ever shaggier, ever more hallucinatory and improbable. The squad, always just a few hours behind their prey, winds up in Tehran, where they witness what dictators do to deserters and dissidents. Smoking a littleappreciations cacciato weed and taking in the staggering sights along the way, they dodge all sorts of obstacles in a modern version of Xenophon’s Anabasis with a Jimi Hendrix soundtrack. Finally, moving as cautiously as a tunnel rat among countless unknown enemies, Berlin arrives in Paris, there to find his quarry peeling carrots and looking characteristically, beatifically dumb.

Or does he? Going After Cacciato, published 40 years ago as Americans were wrestling with their nation’s misadventure, ends on a nicely surreal note that calls everything about the truthfulness of the story and the reality of its narrator into question. Everything, that is, except the terror of war.

Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.