Caught Up in Conflict

Special to the Times

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").

He wrote his first book at 9, taking a story from a library book about the adventures of Little League Larry and turning it into a 35-handwritten-page opus about the adventures of Little League Timmy. His parents still have it. "I knew that from the time I was 9 or 10 years old that if I could be anything, [I would want] to be a novelist," O'Brien says.

"But growing up in that little prairie town, it seemed impossible. It seemed like something someone would do in New York." He went to Macalester College in St. Paul--and then to Vietnam because he was too scared not to.

He believed the war was wrong, stood in vigils and worked for the antiwar candidacy of Eugene McCarthy, but says he was too afraid to disappoint his family and girlfriend by skipping off to Canada. "I wanted to be loved by my parents and town. That web of Midwest values had me snared like a fly."

He spent a year in the infantry, stationed near My Lai in 1969, a year after the massacre there by U.S. troops in which as many as 500 defenseless villagers were slaughtered. Returning home with a Purple Heart, he headed to the doctoral program in government at Harvard (he has lived in Cambridge, Mass., or thereabouts ever since), where he labored on a dissertation on American military intervention. After putting away his books at midnight, he'd spend an hour pouring his own memories of the war onto paper.

"I had to get this out of me," he recalls. "I was writing because I had to." The result was "If I Die in a Combat Zone," a memoir that was followed by two novels--all published while he was still in grad school (although he never got around to finishing the dissertation).

Halfway into the second novel, which would become "Going After Cacciato," O'Brien wrote to his editor, asking if he thought he could make a living as a novelist. "He wasn't very encouraging."

In 1979, "Cacciato," the story of a soldier who decides to walk away from the war and hike to Paris, won the National Book Award. O'Brien's reputation was cemented by a short-story collection called "The Things They Carried" and by "In the Lake of the Woods," an eerie novel about a politician whose career is ended by the revelation that he took part in the My Lai massacre, and who may or may not have killed his wife. It was hailed widely as one of the best books of 1994.

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Just before "In the Lake of the Woods" came out, O'Brien published an agonized account of going back to Vietnam for the first time--and of being dumped by the woman for whom he had left his wife.

"I'm slop," he wrote in "The Vietnam in Me," which ran in the New York Times Magazine and detailed a bout with clinical depression and suicidal longings. "This is despair. This is a valance of horror that Vietnam never approximated. If war is hell, what do we call hopelessness?"

This is the wretched emotional landscape that "Tomcat in Love" tries to laugh at. Chippering is a Vietnam vet, but it's lost love, not war, that haunts him.

"I was sick of writing about Vietnam," O'Brien said, lighting another cigarette. "Tomcat" turned out to be "the most fun I've had with a book. I'm proud of it in a way I've never been proud of a book before."

Men, he said, have come up to him to admit a cringing sense of self-recognition, while a woman recently whispered to him (apparently embarrassed) that Chippering was her ex-husband.

Invariably, however, someone pops up at a reading to ask whether there will be more Vietnam books. To which O'Brien answers that he doesn't know and that all he has is what he knows.

"What if I'd gone to Canada?" he asks. "I think I'd still be a writer, but I'd be writing different kinds of stories, exile stories." His small eyes collapse into slits. "We all carry the weight of words and memory. Human beings are like donkeys, just putting things on our backs and adding on as we go through life. The book I'm imagining now has nothing to do with Vietnam--yet."

* Tim O'Brien is scheduled to read from "Tomcat in Love" tonight from 7 to 8 at Dutton's, 11975 San Vicente Blvd., Brentwood; and Thursday from 7 to 8 p.m. at Vroman's Bookstore, 695 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena.

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