Tomcat in Love
A PUBLIC SPANKING can shatter almost any man's facade of masculinity. Not so for Thomas H. Chippering, professor of linguistics, delusional Don Juan, and loquacious hero of Tim O'Brien's latest novel, Tomcat in Love. Bared and bruised in front of a class of gaping coeds, he returns the scorn of his female detractors: "the thousands of ill-mannered, cement-headed, shrill-voiced, holier-than-thou guardians of ovarian rectitude... they condemn my ardent (and nonpartisan) sensuality; they point fingers at my lifelong parade of lovelies."
Chippering's ardent (and lecherous) sensuality earns him more than a spanking. His hapless philandering gets him fired, blackmailed by an indignant coed, and shanghaied by two hostile cocktail waitresses. Most important, the professor's tomcatting leads to divorce: When his wife discovers a meticulous diary of every lovely he's ever spoken to or made eye contact with, she leaves him for a hairy tycoon from Tampa. The shock sends Chippering into a tailspin of paranoia, from which emerges an absurd plan to drive the love of his life back into his arms by ruining her marriage and/or blowing up her house. It backfires, as everything in this boob's life eventually does, and he hits bottom with a pathetic and very public humiliation.
It's easy to lack sympathy for Tom Chippering. An unrepentant jackass and juvenile sexist, he twists language into riddles to avoid committing himself to anything. While playing the jilted lover, for instance, Chippering uses his linguistic skills to attract an ample paramour named Mrs. Robert Kooshof, whom he uses dreadfully, refusing even to learn her first name. Tomcat in Love isn't just a story about a Lothario who gets his proverbial spanking, though. Chippering's life of sexual malfeasance is a fiction, based on the implausible premise that he's the epitome of the charming, virile American male. Hidden beneath this preposterous shell is a nucleus of confusion, vulnerability, and even innocence, that ultimately makes Chippering impossible to condemn. Without his arsenal of anecdotes, he's an aging fool, floundering in a silliness that spoils all his human relations.
Tomcat in Love seems like a tonal departure for O'Brien, who is best known for his National Book Award-winning Vietnam war novels Going After Cacciato and The Things They Carried; O'Brien's previous comedic effort, The Nuclear Age, is among his least-known works. Though there are peripheral Vietnam connections in the novel, O'Brien refuses to take the war very seriously, instead turning Chippering's flashbacks into absurd comic digressions. Fittingly, Chippering is an inept company clerk, spinning his own Vietnam mythology from behind a typewriter. In one episode, he calls in an air strike on his own platoon and awards himself the Silver Star for valor. "I am a war hero," he says. "I am fury. Do not fuck with me."
In war, as in love, Thomas Chippering is a product of his own imagination. If he's not the standard grave, introspective O'Brien protagonist, his quest for a personal mythology reflects the same theme that makes O'Brien's serious novels so compelling: the power of stories to define and delude--and even to save us.