Tim O’Brien gives writers a lesson in dialogue during the last quarter of Going After Cacciato, when he writes:
“It is humorous?” asked the captain. “You find desertion humorous?”
“No,” Oscar said, “but I find it kind of funny.” (223)
This brief exchange is excellent because of its realistic use of repetition. The variations make the dialogue funny and true at the same time. Note that the captain repeats his question, the second question a variation of the first. The variation emphasizes the captain’s surprise at Oscar’s inappropriate reaction in a way that seems authentic. Then Oscar puns on the captain’s question by using a variation in return. The quick delivery (and the placement of the first dialogue tag between the captain’s questions) achieves the right timing for authenticity and humor. This creates a humorous counterpoint to the serious question of desertion.
O’Brien is able to create tension through humor by contrasting the horrors of war with moments of hilarity that seem inappropriate in contrast. For example, the following dialogue shows writers how to be hilarious:
“You ever hear of such a thing?”
“What Doc said.”
“No, I never did.”
“Me neither.” The boy was chewing again, and the smell was licorice. The moon was a bit lower. “Me neither. I never heard once of no such thing. But Doc, he’s a pretty smart cookie. Pretty darned smart.”
“You bet he is. When he says something man, you know he’s tellin’ the truth. You know it.” The soldier turned, rolling onto his stomach, and began to whistle, drumming with his fingers. Then he caught himself. “Dang it!” He gave his cheek a sharp whack. “Whistling again! I got to stop that dang whistling.” He smiled and thumped his mouth. “But, sure enough, Doc’s a smart one. He knows stuff. You wouldn’t believe the stuff Doc knows. A lot. He knows a lot.”
Paul Berlin nodded.
“Well, you’ll find out yourself. Doc knows his stuff.” Sitting up, the boy shook his head. “A heart attack!” He made a funny face, filling his cheeks like balloons, then letting them deflate. “A heart attack! You hear Doc say that? A heart attack on the field of battle, isn’t that what Doc said?”
“Yes,” Paul Berlin whispered. He felt a tight pressure in his lungs.
“Can you believe it? Billy Boy getting heart attacked? Scared to death?”
Paul Berlin giggled, he couldn’t help it.
“Can you imagine it?”
Paul Berlin imagined it clearly. He imagined the medic’s report. He imagined Billy’s father opening the telegram: SORRY TO INFORM YOU THAT YOUR SON BILLY BOY WAS YESTERDAY SCARED TO DEATH IN ACTION IN THE REPUBLIC OF VIETNAM. (214 – 215)
This dialogue kills for a number of reasons. One, the mix of speech and action makes Cacciato come alive in the reader’s mind. His use of the word “dang,” for example, makes Cacciato seem both young and stupid. Two, his whistling and mouth thumping make Cacciato seem likable. The phrase “heart attacked” is awesome because it sounds so childish. Three, the telegram at the end of this dialogue achieves a comic climax to which the dialogue builds.