Tim O'Brien, who will be the first holder of the Roy F. and Joann Cole Mitte Chair in Creative Writing at Southwest Texas State University come fall 1999, is not exactly the type of writer one imagines falling in love with the Onion Creek area of town. After his National Book Award- winning novel Going After Cacciato, as well as the dark visions of war and the memory of war in two of the best works of fiction of the Nineties, The Things They Carried (the title story soon to be included in Best Stories of the Century) and In the Lake of the Woods (which involves flashbacks to the My Lai massacre), Mr. O'Brien is also the last writer one might think of as writing a relentlessly funny novel about an academic sexist boor. But, in his latest novel, Tomcat in Love, which recently hit number 16 on TheNew York Times bestseller list, he pulls off a trick of Nabokovian felicity.
The novel's myopic narrator is professor of linguistics Thomas H. Chippering, who finds himself tied up by two barmaids he has tried to hit on, spanked in front of his class by his ex-wife's brother and current husband, fired from his university position, then teaching at the Owago Community Day Care Center, and, finally, auditioning to replace the dead kiddie show host of the local cable channel, Captain Nineteen. "How does one survive in such drear circumstances?" Chippering asks. His answer: "One takes to drink. One watches Melrose Place. One builds bombs." As in, to plant in his ex-wife's vicinity.
I asked Tim O'Brien how the novel marks a new direction in his life and his work, as well as how his potential new digs five feet from the golf course might get his game down into the low 70s: "I've always wanted to really spend some time and get serious about golf, to see how good I could get. Before I start to creak."
As for the writing, "Tomcat in Love presented a new technical challenge. Could I write a comic novel? But I don't believe it's all that different from my Vietnam novels. All of my books have been structurally different, but at the heart of each of them I'm always writing about love, the things we do for love, whether it's going to war for one's country or the eternal dance that goes on between men and women. Tomcat followed an exhausting book tour for In the Lake of the Woods, which was a macabre, creepy novel, and the collapse of a love in my life. So, I needed to laugh at myself, and to laugh about the nature of love." As it did at Book People, his 32-city reading tour has filled bookstores with standing-room-only crowds, evidence of what his editor John Sterling attributes to Mr. O'Brien's ability to continually attract young and new readers to his work, in addition to maintaining his loyal and always growing audience.
Coming to Austin and to SWT marks the first time Mr. O'Brien has lived outside of Cambridge, Massachusetts in 28 years. It's not a move he has undertaken lightly. Along the way, he has consulted with his closest friend, Les Ramirez, an environmental lawyer for American Indian tribes around the country, as well as a poet who edits all of Mr. O'Brien's work, and vice versa. The two of them read their work to one another over the telephone frequently, if not, at times, daily. Mr. Ramirez was in Austin with Mr. O'Brien, and the two share a unique and lovely friendship that grew out of their love of literature, as well as their experiences in Vietnam.
As for his upcoming year at SWT, Mr. O'Brien seems enormously pleased and excited by the students he has met, and extraordinarily serious about his role as a teacher. Of course, he noted that, "I also fully expect to carry on in the tradition of Thomas Chippering." So you expect to be spanked in front of a class, I said. "Absolutely." Obviously, his sense of humor has not started to creak. -- Tom Grimes