Both ‘‘Where Have You Gone Charming Billy?’’ and Going After Cacciato are based on O’Brien’s experiences in the Vietnam War. O’Brien was drafted right after college, and he has said, ‘‘When the draft notice arrived after graduation . . . I thought about Canada. thought about jail. But in the end I could not bear the prospect of rejection: by my family, my country, my friends, my hometown. I would risk conscience and rectitude before risking the loss of love.’’ Like Paul Berlin, O’Brien was a very frightened soldier and one who struggled to make sense of his situation. He has taken Vietnam as the central experience in each one of his books. However, O’Brien is also careful in interviews to distinguish between what he calls the ‘‘story-truth’’ and the ‘‘happening-truth’’ of autobiographical fiction. The former refers to the events in a written story that give it verisimilitude and make a reader believe it, while the latter refers to the truth of the lived experience of authors and characters. Happening-truth ‘‘contains the facts of an event, the surface details,’’ while story-truth ‘‘presents the pain and passion surrounding the experience: what is felt in your bowels and in your gut and in your heart and in your throat.’’ So while both Paul Berlin and Tim O’Brien served in Vietnam, one cannot surmise that Tim O’Brien necessarily saw a man die of fright, like Billy Boy Watkins. There is not a one-to-one correspondence between story-truth and happening-truth. What an author of autobiographical fiction does, however, is to use the events of his or her life as a starting place for creation fictional stories fully express the emotional, psychological, and artistic truth of those experiences. In the case of ‘‘Where Have You Gone Charming Billy?’’ we can surmise that O’Brien has used his own experiences as a soldier in Vietnam as the source material for Paul Berlin’s terror, as well as his many strategies he uses for managing and overcoming that terror.
Escapism is the habit of mind by which a person seeks to escape from reality or routine by diverting the attention to imagination. Paul Berlin does not want to be in the war, and he spends much of his first night in combat trying to mentally escape the situation. On the first page of the story, it is stated that ‘‘he was pretending he was not in the war, pretending he had not watched Billy Boy Watkins die of a heart attack that afternoon. He was pretending he was a boy again, camping with his father.’’ Pretending is only one technique by which Paul Berlin seeks to escape the reality of the war. He also uses counting and singing (if only in his head) as ways to avoid experiencing the full reality of his situation. Less successfully, his fit of the giggles is also an attempt to escape the situation. By losing control of his emotions, Paul Berlin momentarily escapes the pressure he feels to not be afraid. Paul Berlin’s impulse to escape his circumstances is understandable, and using his imagination as he does to mitigate the horrors of war makes a certain psychological sense, but this tactic also exposes him to danger. Being at war is dangerous and requires attention, and although Paul Berlin’s imaginative escapism does not harm him in this story, even he realizes that it could endanger his safety. For Paul Berlin, escapism might be both his best tool for dealing with the war and the very thing that most endangers him.
Paul Berlin’s greatest challenge is learning to handle his fear. On his first day at the war he witnesses another soldier’s death, a death that he is told was caused not by his injury but by a heart attack brought on by his own inability to manage his fear. Doc Peret claims that Billy Boy could have survived the amputation of his foot and blames him for his own death. Billy Boy ‘‘got scared and started crying,’’ and despite Doc’s morphine injection and consolation, Billy Boy ‘‘kept bawling, tightening up, his face going pale and transparent and his veins popping out.’’ Billy Boy’s death is a stark warning to Paul Berlin about what will happen to a soldier who cannot control his own emotions. He will cry uncontrollably, just as Paul Berlin succumbs to an uncontrollable fit of the giggles. He will scare himself ‘‘stiff.’’ Paul Berlin desperately wants to learn how to control his emotions so that he will survive the war. He resorts to ‘‘tricks’’—counting, singing, pretending—to distance himself from both the war and his own terror of the war. By the end of the story, he has still not succeeded in this task, no matter how vividly he imagines himself elsewhere; ‘‘soon he could even smell the sea, but he could not stop being afraid.’’
Paul Berlin spends much of this story telling himself stories about what he is experiencing and musing upon the stories he will tell to others when he returns home. At the beginning of the story, he notes that he will ‘‘tell his mother how it smelled . . . but not how frightened he had been in the afternoon,’’ while at the end of the story he comforts himself by imagining how, in the future, his war experience ‘‘would become a funny and sad tale to tell to his father and his friends.’’ O’Brien has said that his intention was to ‘‘not write just about the world we live in, but . . . also write about the world we ought to live in, and could, which is a world of the imagination.’’ Paul Berlin is trapped in a war experience that he finds terrifying and largely incomprehensible. He does not know any of his fellow soldiers, or what the constellations are, or how not to be afraid. In order to make sense of the experience, he tells himself stories. In this he mirrors the task of the writer: to bring order to the chaos of experience by choosing details and putting them in a comprehensible order. Paul Berlin is especially terrified by Billy Boy Watkins’s death because he finds it difficult to believe that he died of fright. Paul Berlin saw Billy Boy Watkins step on the mine; he saw Billy Boy’s inability to comprehend what had happened to him, and he saw that Billy Boy died, apparently of fright, from a wound which he could have survived. Billy Boy’s inability to imagine a story in which he could survive his injury seems to be what has killed him, and subsequently, Paul Berlin spends the remainder of ‘‘Where Have You Gone Charming Billy?’’ trying to tell himself a story in which he himself survives the war, and returns home to tell stories to his parents and his friends. Like counting and singing, storytelling becomes one means by which Paul Berlin seeks to gain some psychological control over his situation, a psychological control he is going to need if he is to survive the war.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 29, Published by Gale Group, 2001.