To date, Tim O'Brien's novels have all shared common traits: his heroes hail from the Midwest, usually Minnesota; Vietnam figures prominently; and the stories he tells, though invested with mordant wit, are usually pretty grim. So an O'Brien fan coming to Tomcat in Love on the heels of his earlier novels can be forgiven for occasionally checking the name on the cover (and the photo on the dust jacket) just to be sure this is, indeed, the same Tim O'Brien who wrote Going After Cacciato, The Things They Carried, If I Die in a Combat Zone, and In the Lake of the Woods.
In Tomcat in Love O'Brien introduces us to a very different hero: "In summary, then, my circumstances were these. Something over forty-nine years of age. Recently divorced. Pursued. Prone to late-night weeping. Betrayed not once but threefold: by the girl of my dreams, by her Pilate of a brother, and by a Tampa real-estate tycoon whose name I have vowed never again to utter."
Thomas H. Chippering, professor of linguistics, war hero, and sex magnet--in his own mind, at least--has recently lost his childhood sweetheart and wife of 20 years to another man, the Tampa magnate, and Lorna Sue's desertion has clearly unhinged him. He has taken to flying down to Tampa from Minnesota on weekends to spy on his ex-wife and plot revenge against her, the tycoon, and Lorna Sue's brother, Herbie, whom he blames for destroying his marriage.
Thomas, Lorna Sue, and Herbie go back a long way together, bound equally by ties of love, guilt and suspicion. Dating from the afternoon young Herbie nailed an even younger Lorna Sue's hand to a makeshift cross, Thomas has occupied a kind of emotional no man's land between the two: "In my bleakest moods, when black gets blackest, I think of it as a high perversion: Herbie coveted his own sister. Which is a fact. The stone truth. He was in love with her. More generously, I will sometimes concede that it was not sexual love, or not entirely, and that Herbie was driven by the obsessions of a penitent, a torturer turned saviour. Partly, too, I am quite certain that Herbie secretly associated me with his own guilt. I was present at the beginning. My backyard, my plywood, my green paint."
Chippering takes his revenge to hilarious lengths, starting with a purple leather bra and panties stuffed beneath the seat of the tycoon's car and escalating from there. But even as he attempts to wreak havoc in his ex-wife's life, he succeeds in laying ruin to his own. His self- proclaimed irresistibility to women gets him in hot water with both his female students and his administration; his obsession with Lorna Sue threatens his budding romance with Mrs. Robert Kooshof, a woman who loves him as his wife never did--and, oh yes, there's that little matter of the squad of Green Berets he crossed many years before in Vietnam who may or may not be hunting him down.
Once you get over the shock of this new, funny Tim O'Brien, traces of the writer you thought you knew begin to surface. Chippering might be a pompous, overbearing windbag, but you can't trust him any more than you did any of O'Brien's other earthier, equally unreliable narrators. In one breath, he tells us, "I must in good conscience point out that women find me attractive beyond words. And who on earth could blame them?" In the next he describes himself as resembling "a clean-shaven version of our sixteenth president." Half the fun of reading Tomcat in Love is trying to sort out just how much of what Thomas H. Chippering tells us is true. Stellar writing, a brilliant cast of characters, and a sly, surprising story that breaks your heart one minute and tickles your funny bone the next all make Tim O'Brien's first foray into the comic novel a resounding success. --Alix Wilber, Amazon.comEND