Combat zone

Tomcat in Love

Tim O'Brien <em>Flamingo, 347pp, £16.99</em>

At first glance, Tim O'Brien's new novel appears to be a radical departure. Tomcat in Love tells the story of Thomas Chippering, a professor of linguistics at a Minnesota university, whose wife of 20 years, Lorna Sue, has left him for another man. The tone is markedly different from O'Brien's previous work, much of which was set amid the horror of the Vietnam war. Gone is the measured, powerfully precise prose - in its place we find the loquacious cosmopolitan voice of a middle-aged Lothario whose love of nubile young women is matched only by his fascination with language and its slippery pliability. O'Brien has never attempted comedy before, yet Tomcat in Love is genuinely funny, the humour arising from Chippering's unreliability and acute lack of self-awareness. O'Brien exhibits a new-found playfulness, taking sideswipes at the campus culture of political correctness, poking fun at the artificiality of fictional narration and relishing the liberation from realism that his burlesque plot brings.

For all these differences, however, Tomcat in Love is a development of O'Brien's earlier work. His 1994 novel, In the Lake of the Woods, explored the latent capacity of the Vietnam war to haunt present-day American life, with the protagonist John Wade's seemingly unstoppable progress to the US Senate abruptly curtailed by the public exposure of a shameful secret from his combatant years. And the troubled, enigmatic union between Wade and his wife Kathy established O'Brien's interest in the parallels between military conflict and the psychological warfare frequently waged within personal relationships.

Tomcat in Love is permeated by an atmosphere of humiliated pride and the clamourous desire for vengeance. Chippering is obsessed with the destruction of Lorna Sue's second marriage and stages a military-style campaign to wreck her new life. He fantasises constantly about the moment when, having conquered her spirit, she will come back to him and he in turn will reject her. His excesses lead to an excruciating and very public humiliation at the hands of Lorna Sue's brother and new husband. Chippering's desire to get even spirals to new depths.

At one level, then, Tomcat in Love is an account - magnified and distorted by the funfair mirror of black comedy - of the personal madness that can arise from gravely wounded pride. Yet the novel defies any one simple reading, and there are unmistakable political dimensions. America today is governed by a generation still smarting from the ignominy of Vietnam; somewhere in her collective national psyche she longs for the chance to exorcise and avenge the shame of that humbling war. She also finds herself cast in the role of global police officer, intervening in ill-understood conflicts in far-off theatres. Tomcat in Love can be read as a satire of this contradictory state of affairs.

At one point, Chippering - flung out of academe - auditions for the part of a children's television character, Captain Nineteen: "Once in every century there is born into this universe a special man. With the strength of Atlas. The wisdom of Solomon. The courage of a lion. You are that man. You are Captain Nineteen." Yet Chippering, aspiring global good guy, is consumed by past humiliations which render his audition a disaster. His response to every slight is to bomb, a pattern established while an administrator in Vietnam when he avenged the cruelty of six comrades by calling in an air strike on their position. His ultimate revenge on Lorna Sue is to firebomb her house.

Still other readings of Tomcat in Love jostle for attention. Presidential imagery is scattered throughout - Chippering describes himself as "a clean-shaven version of Abe Lincoln". It is impossible to follow Chippering's serial priapic escapades, complete with convoluted linguistic escape clauses - escapades from which he never seems to learn - and not be put in mind of the present incumbent of the White House.

O'Brien has taken a risk in developing a strikingly different narrative approach. The tone of the novel may jar with admirers of his previous fiction and - as one such admirer - there is a lingering mourning for his established style and its direct confrontation with raw emotion. Yet the change of direction has brought many rewards, not least the spectacle of a supremely accomplished writer thriving on, and mastering, fresh challenges. Tomcat in Love is a complex and enthralling novel.

Phil Whitaker is the new fiction critic of the "NS". His reviews will appear monthly. His second novel, "Triangulation" (Phoenix House, £12.99), is published on 20 May