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Caught Up in Conflict

Known for Haunting Novels About Vietnam, Award-Winning Author Tim O'Brien Surprises With a Black Comedy Rooted in His Unhappy Childhood

September 30, 1998|MICHAEL J. YBARRA | Special to the Times

BERKELEY — Tim O'Brien isn't feeling well. He's been like this all day, he explains to a bookstore full of fans who have gathered to hear him read from his latest novel, "Tomcat in Love" (Broadway Books). A small, almost slight man with intense dark eyes, a large nose and a baseball cap perpetually affixed to the top of his head, the acclaimed author apologetically says he'll just read for a little bit and then answer questions.

Flipping open the green-sleeved novel, he introduces the fans to Thomas H. Chippering, a delusional, windbag professor of linguistics who hits on every female he meets ("Women find me attractive beyond words," says Chippering) and keeps score in a secret "love ledger" ("Meaningful gazes: 1,788. Home runs: 4. Near-misses: 128"), while at the same time pining for--and plotting revenge against--the love of his life, Lorna Sue, his childhood sweetheart, who left him for a hairy tycoon in Tampa, Fla.

"The guy's insufferable isn't he?" O'Brien asks in reference to Chippering's many flaws, such as the inability to remember his own girlfriend's name or to have a sustained conversation about any subject other than himself.

Three times, the writer pauses to stop the reading, only to continue, seemingly in thrall of his creation.

"I'll just read a little more," O'Brien says--sounding entirely like Mr. Chippering.

And why not? He started writing "Tomcat" as a memoir about his unhappy boyhood. But he wound up producing a wild black comedy about betrayal--a dramatic departure from the lyrical, Vietnam-haunted fiction that has won him a fierce following.

"I really think it's my best book," he said earlier in the day, wolfing down Carlton 100s. "The sustained voice, the prose. I don't talk like that. It's hard work."

Like the crazed, pedantic narrator of Nabokov's "Pale Fire," Chippering tells his own orotund story in what may or may not be an approximation of reality. An admitted "half truth teller," Chippering is a hairsplitter of Clintonian proportions who rejoices in the "elasticity of the past tense" but, nevertheless, occasionally stumbles across some truth.

"After an act of betrayal," the linguist wonders, "can one truthfully say, in the past tense, 'Well, I was committed,' and if so, what fuzzy function does the word serve in our intricate, ongoing web of promises and expectations? If commitment comes undone, was such commitment ever commitment?"

Reviews of O'Brien's seventh book have been all over the map. The Washington Post urged readers to run to the nearest bookstore to buy it.

"O'Brien has gone out on a limb, and readers will be hard-pressed not to scurry along after him," said the San Francisco Chronicle. "O'Brien shows us how our ability to communicate betrays us when words mask rather than explain the truth. In this way, Thomas not only becomes a tragic figure who elicits our pity, but one with universal implications."

But Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times found the book a "mangled mess." "'Tomcat in Love' isn't the least bit funny or insightful," she panned. "It's a claustrophobic place to be."

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To O'Brien, that is both taking the book too seriously and not taking it seriously enough.

"I was thinking it would be the first book I got universally nailed on," he said. "I'm damn happy it wasn't. It's like a Woody Allen movie--you just laugh at it. I find [Chippering] loathsome in some ways, lonely, smart in others. I feel like I'm defending him. But it's easy to say he's a misogynist and stop.

"He's telling the truth, and it's uncomfortable to hear. It's the power of words to both cover and uncover emotion. He's caught up in words like I am. Sometimes he says pretty smart things. If your wife dumped you and moved to Fiji, would Fiji still be Fiji?"

Much of the book takes place in Owago, Minn., the Rock Cornish Hen Capital of the World, where the high point of the cultural calendar is the annual hen parade down Main Street. ("The citizens of Owago watch from sidewalks," O'Brien writes. "Then they go home.") O'Brien, 52, grew up in Worthington, Minn., the Turkey Capital of the World.

"I don't know if I can ever go home again," he said. "The people in Worthington take their turkeys seriously. My mom and dad might have to move."

He speaks bitterly of his hometown, describing it as self-righteous, small-minded, a holier-than-thou kind of place--a planned community by Ken Starr. He still fumes over one of the town's civic leaders who came to an event to raise money to buy books, looked around at the small library and exclaimed indignantly, "You've got books!"

O'Brien's dad sold insurance, his mom taught school. O'Brien says he himself was chubby, lonely and felt picked on by his father, who baffled him one day by giving him a turtle when he'd asked for a toy airplane (a scene O'Brien put into "Tomcat").

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