The Austin Chronicle

Tim O'Brien at SWT

in person

By Sarah Hepola, October 8, 1999, Books

For those unfamiliar with novelist Tim O'Brien, my condolences.

For those whose shelves echo the name, emblazoned down the creased spine of books both dogeared and floppy, O'Brien's public readings at Southwest Texas State are the best reason to travel to San Marcos since the advent of the outlet mall. The first recipient of the Mitte Chair in Creative Writing at SWT, O'Brien is best known for his brilliant short story, "The Things They Carried," a poignant and unforgettable depiction of the emotions and loss felt by boys in battle. Anthologized (yet again) in the John Updike-edited Best American Short Stories of the Century, the tale serves as the introductory chapter in a deeply moving, must-read war novel of the same name. As the first of four public events featuring O'Brien this year (the remaining three will take place in the spring), the novelist offered "The Man I Killed," a somber, meditative story from The Things They Carried about a soldier's first killing. With one repeated phrase circling around his stunned head ("His one eye was shut, his other eye was a star-shaped hole"), the soldier spins an imagined life for the dead boy, a life he snuffed out quickly, simply, and without recourse.

Shifting gears, O'Brien then read from his latest work, Tomcat in Love, a comedy of bad manners centering on professor of linguistics Tom Chippering, a shameless cad consumed by revenge fantasies after his wife, Lorna Sue, deserts him. In the passage, the good professor's antics have won him not only a nice dose of blackmail (from a toothsome coed stockpiling charges of sexual harassment) but also a new roommate (a loving, but needy, Dutch divorcée). O'Brien's deadpan delivery made the excerpt a delight, although perhaps even more amusing was the sight of watching his colleagues crack up with shocks of recognition as O'Brien skewered academia, especially those roguish professors who fashion themselves more seductor than instructor.

Of even more delight was the news that O'Brien, only a few months into a yearlong commitment at SWT, has decided to put down roots. "I came to Texas thinking I'd only live here for a year," he told the audience. But he's already found a home, and he plans to stay for a while -- a perfect time for the uninitiated to get to know him.

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