Books: Lost in the blackboard jungle

Tomcat in Love by Tim O'Brien Flamingo, pounds 16.99, 347pp
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The Independent Culture
THOMAS H Chippering, the priapic and self-involved linguistics hack of Tim O'Brien's new comic novel, adores women either one after another, or two or three at a time. And while his grasp of the truth is pretty self-interested, his modes of seduction are manifold: composing term papers for his most willing students, picking up sales girls in S&M lingerie boutiques, screaming names in the night and pounding on all the wrong doors.

Having lost the wife he supposedly adored for two decades (through no fault of his own, of course), Thomas suddenly finds himself befuddled by possibilities. Should he win his old wife back, or simply teach her (and the "hairy tycoon" with whom she eloped to Tampa) a lesson? For Thomas, love and revenge are not antithetical. And every seduction sets the stage for some betrayal.

So Thomas carries on the same way he always has. He pontificates about the slippages between words and reality. He gropes every girl who seems to like him (though few are foolish enough to stick around for the long haul). And he suffers frequent fits of "late night weeping" while wondering who that is back there in the darkness trying to catch up. Lost loves, unfaithful friends? Those buddies he left stranded back in Vietnam, after learning they had slept with his early love? Maybe they're still teed off by that snappish air strike he called on their bivouac.

Like a caricature of pompous academics, Thomas doesn't live life so much as just keep score. Yet "the quantities never proved sufficient". For him, women aren't people to be experienced so much as material to be consumed. In a world of slippery signification, truth isn't something one lives by. Rather, it's a story you tell yourself until you get it right.

Back in the States, Tomcat in Love has been oddly praised as a comic departure from O'Brien's more "serious" fictions, such as the award- winning Vietnam fantasy, Going After Cacciato. Unfortunately, though, while all of O'Brien's previous books were very funny, Tomcat feels mostly belaboured, a homage to the wordsmanship of Nabokov which never takes off on its own.

The digressions don't gather momentum; the academic satire feels terribly familiar; and even the long line of spunky, attractive female characters lack any sort of narrative frisson. One of America's best living fiction writers, Tim O'Brien has not written a single bad sentence in this new book. But none of those sentences ever really adds up.