Cover image for Tomcat in love
Tomcat in love
O'Brien, Tim, 1946-
Personal Author:
First trade paperback edition.
Publication Information:
New York, NY : Broadway Books, 1999.

Physical Description:
342 pages ; 21 cm
Program Information:
Accelerated Reader AR UG 5.7 15.0 57013.
Format :


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X Adult Fiction Open Shelf

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In this wildly funny, brilliantly inventive novel, Tim O'Brien has created the ultimate character for our times. Thomas Chippering, a 6'6" professor of linguistics, is a man torn between two obsessions: the desperate need to win back his former wife, the faithless Lorna Sue, and a craving to test his erotic charms on every woman he meets.

But there are complications, including Lorna Sue's brother, Herbie, with whom she has an all-too-close relationship, and the considerable charms of Chippering's new love, the attractive, and of course already married, Mrs. Robert Kooshof, who may at last satisfy Chippering's longing for intimacy.

In Tomcat in Love , Tim O'Brien takes on the battle of the sexes with astonishing results. By turns hilarious, outrageous, romantic, and deeply moving, this is one of the most talked about novels in years: a novel for this and every age.

Author Notes

Tim O'Brien was born on October 1, 1946 in Austin, Minnesota. He graduated from Macalester College in 1968 and was immediately drafted into the U. S. Army, serving from 1969 to 1970 and receiving a Purple Heart.

Three years later, his memoirs of the Vietnam War were published as If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home. Later works include Northern Lights (1975), Going After Cacciato (1978, winner of the National Book Award), and The Things They Carried (1990, winner of the Melcher Book Award and finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award).

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

To call Thomas Chippering, well-known linguistics professor, a "womanizer" doesn't capture him. He's a woman appreciator gone wild, ogling every female he meets and often taking them on two at a time, not for sex but to talk them to death and later to categorize them in his little black book. The book is full of statistics but empty of understanding. Tom married his childhood sweetheart, Lorna Sue, but she never loved anyone but herself. When she throws him over, he embarks on a campaign of revenge. It's a crafty, near-military campaign. Revenge and paranoia--the stuff of sexual warfare--drive O'Brien's novel, but Tom is on his way down for more reasons than Lorna Sue. He makes a pass at one of his students, who blackmails him into writing her thesis and then turns him in for sexual harassment. Tom loses his job, descending into a brief, hilarious, sad career as a children's TV character named Captain Nineteen. Tom's a bedlam and, like Portnoy, ends up in the care of a psychiatrist. He's the classic lying narrator, a likable sociopath. All he really wants is for a woman somewhere to listen to him, yet he's so busy worshiping goddesses that when an ordinary, decent woman falls for him, he doesn't understand that she will do exactly that. O'Brien is funny, and over the years, with the publication of his masterful war novels, has become a subtle and original stylist. But his story is simple: love is hard to find, hardest of all when you desperately need to find it. --John MortUpcoming in Upfront

Publisher's Weekly Review

All of O'Brien's previous six novels, except perhaps The Nuclear Age, have a Vietnam War experience at their core. Men (and women) at war‘and warring with war's aftermath‘are themes that have sustained O'Brien's gifted narrative rushes and his beautiful prose, garnering him high praise, including a National Book Award (for Going After Cacciato). After the mixed reception of In the Lake of the Woods, O'Brien said he would stop writing fiction for a while. His return here will be welcomed by his many fans, but he is not in top form. The "Tomcat" of the title is one Thomas Chippering, a 6'6'' professor of linguistics whose wife has left him for "a tycoon in Tampa." Chippering narrates his woes, his scheme for revenge, the background to what he insists is his deep love for the departed Lorna Sue, all the while pursuing nubile coeds and the wife of a convicted tax felon. Although the book is being positioned as a comedy, Chippering is a most obnoxious companion, so terribly self-deluded, self-absorbed and self-satisfied, so pedantic and boorish, so convinced of his own charms that the unfolding drama of his pursuit of revenge becomes discomfiting. We want to root for his ex-wife, but through the Chippering "song of myself" we don't hear her, or know her. The Vietnam experience here, what there is of it, is ludicrously, and even disrespectfully, invoked by Chippering, who will remind those who attempt to resist his advances that he is a war hero. Although O'Brien is on interesting ground laying out Chippering's childhood crush on Lorna Sue in 1950s Minnesota, the book careens toward an unconvincing portrait of madness that is irritatingly flippant and shrill. BOMC and QPB alternates. Agent, Lynn Nesbit; editor, John Sterling. (Sept.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

From the beginning, Thomas Chippering's life has revolved around two people: Herbie, his sociopathic playmate, and Herbie's younger sister Lorna Sue. Despite her idiosyncratic behavior and the intrusions of her lower-class family, Thomas worships her; after an odd courtship they are married. A number of years later, divorced, Thomas is still obsessed with Lorna Sue and the breakup of their relationship. A soon-to-be divorcée may be Thomas's chance for recovery and lasting love‘if she can keep his mind off Lorna Sue and his hands off other female admirers. Redemption can be a hard sell in fiction, and the reader will have to muster some interest in Thomas's arrogant, Don Juanish character to make this work. O'Brien, author of In the Lake of the Woods (LJ 8/94) and a National Book Award winner for Going After Cacciato (LJ 12/15/77), lets Thomas narrate, obscuring revelations conveniently held till the end. But overlook all this, and there may be a small audience for this quirky character study. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 5/1/98.]‘Marc A. Kloszewski, Indiana Free Lib., PA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Faith I begin with the ridiculous, in June 1952, middle-century Minnesota, on that silvery-hot morning when Herbie Zylstra and I nailed two plywood boards together and called it an airplane. "What we need," said Herbie, "is an engine." The word engine --its meanings beyond mere meaning--began to open up for me. I went into the house and found my father. "I'll need an engine," I told him. "Engine?" he said. "For an airplane." My father thought about it. "Makes sense," he said. "One airplane engine, coming up." "When?" "Soon enough," said my father. "Pronto." Was this a promise? Was this duplicity? Herbie and I waited all summer. We painted our airplane green. We cleared a runway in the backyard, moving the big white birdbath, digging up two of my mother's rhododendrons. We eyed our plane. "What if it crashes?" I said. Herbie made a scoffing noise. " Parachutes," he said. (A couple of his front teeth were missing, which caused bubbles to form when he laughed at me.) "Anyway, don't be stupid. We'll drop bombs on people. Bomb my house." So we filled mason jars with gasoline. Through July and August, in the soft, grave density of that prairie summer, we practiced our bombing runs, getting the feel of it, the lift, the swoop. Herbie was eight, I was seven. We made the sounds an engine would make. In our heads, where the world was, we bombed Mrs. Catchitt's garage, the church across the street, Jerry Powell and his cousin Ernest and other people we feared or despised. Mostly, though, we bombed Herbie's house. The place was huge and bright yellow, a half block away, full of cousins and uncles and nuns and priests and leathery old grandmothers. A scary house, I thought, and Herbie thought so too. He liked yelling " Die!" as he banked into a dive; he said things about his mother, about black bones and fires in the attic. For me, the bombing was fine. It seemed useful, vaguely productive, but the best part was flight itself, or the anticipation of flight, and over those summer days the word engine did important engine work in my thoughts. I did not envision machinery. I envisioned thrust: a force pressing upward and outward, even beyond. This notion had its objective component--properties both firm and man-made--but on a higher level, as pure idea, the engine that my father would be bringing home did not operate on mechanical principles. I knew nothing, for example, of propellers and gears and such. My engine would somehow contain flight. Like a box, I imagined, which when opened would release the magical qualities of levitation into the plywood boards of my airplane. At night, in bed, I would find myself murmuring that powerful, empowering word: engine . I loved its sound. I loved everything it meant, everything it did not mean but should. Summer ended, autumn came, and what my father finally brought home was a turtle. A mud turtle--small and black. My father had a proud look on his face as he stooped down and placed it on our backyard runway. "That thing's a turtle ," Herbie said. "Toby," said my father. "I think his name is Toby." "Well, God, I know that," Herbie said. "Every turtle on earth, they're all named Toby. It's still just a stupid old turtle." "A pretty good one," my father said. Herbie's face seemed to curdle in the bright sunlight. He scooped up the turtle, searched for its head, then dropped it upside down on the runway. I remember backing away, feeling a web of tensions far too complex for me: disappointment, partly, and confusion, but mostly I was afraid for my father. Herbie could be vicious at times, very loud, very demonstrative, easily unnerved by the wrongs of the world. "Oh, boy," he muttered. He took a few slow steps, then ran. If anything was said between my father and me, I cannot remember it. What I do remember--vividly--is feeling stupid. The words turtle and engine seemed to do loops in the backyard sunlight. There had to be some sort of meaningful connection, a turtleness inside engineness, or the other way around, but right then I could not locate the logic. The backyard was silent. I remember my father's pale-blue eyes, how he gazed at something just beyond the birdbath. "Well," he said, then stopped and carefully folded his hands. "Sorry, Tommy. Best I could do." Then he turned and went into the house. Afterward, I stood studying Toby. I poked at him with my foot. "Hey, you," I murmured, but it was a very stupid turtle, more object than animal. It showed no interest in my foot, or my voice, or anything else in the physical universe. Turtle, I kept thinking, and even now, in my middle age, those twin syllables still claw at me. The quick t 's on my tongue: turtle . Even after four decades I cannot encounter that word without a gate creaking open inside me. Turtle for the world--turtle for you--will never be turtle for me. Nor this: corn . Nor this: Pontiac . Have you ever loved a man, then lost him, then learned he lives on Fiji with a new lover? Is Fiji still Fiji? Coconuts and palm trees? At sixteen, in a windy autumn cornfield, I made first love on the hood of my father's green Pontiac. I remember the steel against my skin. I remember darkness, too, and a sharp wind, and rustlings in the corn. I was terrified. Pontiac means: Will this improve? And that Indian-head ornament on the hood--did the bastard bite my feet? Did I hear a chuckle? Peeping Tom, ogler, eyewitness, sly critic: the word Indian embraces all of these meanings and many more. The world shrieks and sinks talons into our hearts. This we call memory. In the backyard that afternoon, alone with Toby, I felt a helplessness that went beyond engines or turtles. It had to do with treachery. Even back then, in a dark, preknowledge way, I understood that language was involved, its frailties and mutabilities, its potential for betrayal. My airplane, after all, was not an airplane. No engine on earth would make it fly. And over the years I have come to realize that Herbie and I had willfully deceived ourselves, renaming things, reinventing the world, which was both pretending and a kind of lying. But there were also the words my father had used: "One airplane engine, coming up." His intent, I know, was benign. To encourage. To engage. And yet for me, as a seven-year-old, the language he had chosen took on the power of a binding commitment, one I kept pestering him to honor, and through July and August, as summer heated up, my father must have felt trapped by a promise he neither had intended nor could possibly keep. "Right. I'm working on it," he'd say, whenever I brought up the subject. He'd say, "Pretty soon, partner." He'd say, "No sweat." He'd say, "Be patient. I've placed the order." But a turtle? Why not broccoli? * * * The next morning was a Sunday. Maybe an hour after Mass, Herbie walked into my backyard. "Your dad's a liar," he said. "Yeah, sort of," I told him, "but not usually," then I tried to mount a defense. I talked about Toby, what a fine turtle he was, how I could get him to stick his head out from under the shell by putting a pan of water in front of him. I talked about using Toby as a bomb. "It'll be neat," I said. "Drop him on the mailman." Herbie looked at me hard. "Except your dad's still a liar, Tommy. They all are. They just lie and lie. They can't even help it. That's what fathers are for . Nothing else. They lie." I stood silent. Arguments, I knew, were useless. All I could do was wait--which I did--and after a few moments Herbie strolled over to our plywood airplane, picked it up, and carried it across the lawn. He placed it tail down against the garage. "It's not a plane anymore," he said. "It's a cross." "Cross how?" I asked. "Like in the Bible," said Herbie. "A cross . Let's go get my sister. Lorna Sue--we'll nail her to it." "Okay," I said. We walked the half block to Herbie's yellow house. The place was enormous, especially to a child, and it took a long while to find Lorna Sue, who sat playing with her dollhouse up in the attic. She was seven years old. Very pretty: black hair, summer-brown skin. I liked her a lot, and Lorna Sue liked me too, which was obvious, and a decade later we would find ourselves in a cornfield along Highway 16, completely in love, very cold, testing our courage on the hood of my father's Pontiac. The world sometimes precedes itself. In the attic that day--September 1952--I am almost certain that both Lorna Sue and I understood deep in our bones that significant events were now in motion. I remember the smell of that attic, so dank and fungal, so dangerous. I remember Herbie gazing down at his sister. "We need you," he said. "What for?" said Lorna Sue. "It'll be neat. Tommy and me, we've got this cross--we'll nail you to it." Lorna Sue smiled at me. This was love. Seven years old. Even then. "Well," she said, "I guess so." And so the three of us trooped back to my house. Impatiently, under Herbie's supervision, Lorna Sue stood against the cross and spread out her slender brown arms. "This better be fun," she said, "because I'm pretty busy." Herbie and I went into the garage, where we found a hammer and two rusty nails. I remember a frothiness in my stomach; I felt queasy, yes, but also curious. As we walked back toward Lorna Sue, I lagged behind a little. "You think this'll hurt?" I asked. Herbie shrugged. His eyes had a hard, fixed, enthusiastic shine, like the eyes of certain trained assassins I would later encounter in the mountains of Vietnam. Herbie gripped the hammer in his right hand. Quietly, like a doctor, he told Lorna Sue to close her eyes, which she did, and at that point, thank God, my mother came out the back door with a basket of damp laundry. The basket was blue, the laundry mostly white. "What's this?" my mother asked. "Sunday school," Lorna Sue said. "I get to be Jesus." At dinner that evening, the hammer and nails lay at the center of the kitchen table. It was a long and very difficult meal. Over and over, I had to explain how the whole thing had been a game, just for fun, not even a real cross. My father studied me as if I'd come down with polio. "The hammer," he said. "You see the hammer?" "Sure." "Is it real?" "Naturally," I said. He nodded. "And the nails? Real or unreal?" "Real," I told him, "but not like . . . I mean, is Toby a real engine ?" My father was unhappy with that. I remember how his jaw firmed up, how he leaned back, glanced over at my mother, then segued into a vigorous lecture about the difference between playing games and driving nails through people's hands. Even as a seven-year-old, I already knew the difference--it was obvious--but sitting there at the kitchen table, feeling wronged and defenseless, I could not find words to say the many things I wanted to say: that I was not a murderer, that events had unfolded like a story in a book, that I had been pulled along by awe and wonder, that I had never really believed in any of it, that I was almost positive that Herbie would not have hammered those nails through Lorna Sue's pretty brown hands. These and other thoughts spun through my head. But all I could do was stare down at my plate and say, "All right." "All right what ?" my father said. "You know. I won't nail anybody." "What about Herbie?" "He won't either," I said. "I'm pretty sure." But he did. The left palm. Halfway through. Almost dead center. Accuracy matters. Herbie Zylstra was not a mean-spirited child. Nothing of the sort. Hyperactive, to be sure, and so impulsive he could sometimes make my stomach wobble, but I never felt physical fear in his presence. More like wariness--a butterfly sensation. In a later decade, Herbie would have been a candidate for Ritalin or some similar drug, gallons of the stuff, a long rubber hose running from pharmacy to vein. Accuracy, though. September. A Saturday morning, two weeks after school opened. Around noon Herbie stopped by. "I'll need the cross," he said. I was busy with Toby; I barely looked up. Herbie muttered something and picked up the cross and carried it over to his house and set it up against a big elm tree on the front lawn. He found Lorna Sue. He told her to stay steady. He squinted and pursed his lips and put the point of the nail against the center of her left palm and took aim and cocked his wrist. He did not have the strength, I suppose, to drive the nail all the way through, or maybe it wasn't a solid strike, or maybe at the last instant Herbie held back out of some secret virtue, pity or humility. I was not there to witness it. All I can attest to is the sound of sirens. Voices too, I think. And maybe a scream. But maybe not. Later in the day my mother called me inside and told me about it. Immediately, I ran for my bedroom. I slammed the door, crawled under the bed, made fists, yelled something, banged the floor. What I was feeling, oddly enough, was a kind of rage, a cheated sensation: denied access to something rare and mysterious and important. I should have been there--an eyewitness to the nailing. I deserved it. Even now, half a lifetime later, my absence that day remains a source of regret and bitterness. I had earned the right. It was my plywood. My green paint. Other reasons too: because at age sixteen I would make first love with Lorna Sue Zylstra on the hood of my father's Pontiac, and because ten years later we would be married, and because twenty-some years after that Lorna Sue would discover romance with another man, and betray me, and move to Tampa. Excerpted from Tomcat in Love by Tim O'Brien All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

1. Faithp. 1
2. Eighteenp. 19
3. Tulipp. 21
4. Rosesp. 23
5. Confessionp. 37
6. Substancep. 44
7. Junglep. 56
8. Ned, Earleen, Velvap. 63
9. Catp. 69
10. Performancep. 78
11. Goofp. 84
12. Predatorp. 87
13. Pontiacp. 91
14. Virtuep. 107
15. No / Yesp. 115
16. Shellp. 127
17. Tampap. 132
18. Lostp. 142
19. Foundp. 151
20. Ledgerp. 164
21. Rainp. 178
22. Twinklep. 198
23. Yes / Nop. 208
24. Noogiesp. 213
25. Firep. 215
26. Ringp. 229
27. Youp. 236
28. Spotp. 239
29. Nineteenp. 259
30. Nervesp. 267
31. Visitationp. 282
32. Velocityp. 289
33. The Fourth (Morning, Early Afternoon)p. 295
34. Spiderp. 300
35. The Fourth (Late Afternoon, Evening)p. 307
36. The Fourth (late Night)p. 320
37. Fijip. 336