The chapter opens shortly after the events of Chapter Seven. Doc is tending to Stink Harris’s injury: Stink has tried to capture Cacciato, and failed. Stink explains that he came “this close” to capturing Cacciato, but Cacciato injured Sink and managed to run away. Stink mutters, “No more Mr. Nice Guy.”
Frustratingly, O’Brien doesn’t tell us what Stink did, or how the soldiers almost captured Cacciato. He leaves it to us to imagine the details, perhaps mirroring the process by which Berlin is himself imagining the story that we’re reading.
The next day, the soldiers find a pile of Cacciato’s old maps. On one of the maps, they find a message: “Look out, there’s a hole in the road.” After reading this, Lieutenant Corson formulates a new plan: based on the maps, it seems that Cacciato is headed for Mandalay. Because Cacciato is taking a slightly “curved” route, the soldiers can “head him off” by traveling straight—off the road. The soldiers find this plan foolish, since going off the road will require traveling through the jungle again—difficult, tiring work. Corson reiterates that the soldiers must drop off the three women as soon as possible.
Here, our suspicions are confirmed: Cacciato wants the soldiers to follow him, as he’s giving them advice and direction for how best to track him down. Interestingly, the characters in this novel flit in and out (mostly because so many die), so that it’s sometimes difficult to remember who is and isn’t a part of the soldiers’ squad. We haven’t heard anything from the three women in a while—we’d almost forgotten them.
In the evening, the soldiers prepare for their walk through the jungle. Paul Berlin finds Sarkin and tells her that they’ll have to let her go soon. Sarkin begs Berlin to find a way to keep her in the group, and reminds him that they could see Paris together one day. She weeps, knowing that Berlin will never be able to change Corson’s mind.
Sarkin’s tears may be perfectly sincere, but this shouldn’t imply that she has special feelings for Berlin. She wants to escape her life in Vietnam by traveling west, and traveling with soldiers on the road to Paris was the perfect way to achieve this goal.
The next morning, the soldiers decide to send the women on their way. They help the women climb into the cart. Everyone takes care to move particularly slowly, so that they spend as much time with the women as possible. Sarkin squeezes Berlin’s hand and whispers, “You will find a way.” Then Lieutenant Corson swats the buffalo, signaling it to begin driving the cart away. Berlin, overcome with emotion, sees the earth “tear itself open” with a loud explosion. Other soldiers watch, awestruck, as the buffalo and its passengers fall into the enormous hole created by the explosion. The hole grows, swallowing up Berlin and his fellow soldiers, taking them “down a hole in the road to Paris.”
In this section, the line between reality and fantasy or fairy tale disappears. In a passage worthy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Berlin and his friends fall through a hole in the ground. The tone of this passage suggests ”magical realism,” in which fantastical events are mingled with realistic ones, and are described (and perceived by the characters) as if they are ordinary. This scene also establishes a theme of the sinister liveliness of the land of Vietnam.