Tomcat in Love

Tomcat in Love

4.4 9
by Tim O'Brien

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A wildly funny, brilliantly inventive novel about a man torn between two obsessions: the desperate need to win back his former wife and a craving to test his erotic charms on every woman he meets.

He is 6'6" tall, a cross between Ichabod Crane and Abe Lincoln. He is a professor of linguistics, bewitched by language, deluded about his ability to win the hearts of

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A wildly funny, brilliantly inventive novel about a man torn between two obsessions: the desperate need to win back his former wife and a craving to test his erotic charms on every woman he meets.

He is 6'6" tall, a cross between Ichabod Crane and Abe Lincoln. He is a professor of linguistics, bewitched by language, deluded about his ability to win the hearts of women with his erudition and physical appeal. He is Thomas H. Chippering, a.k.a. Tomcat, a masterly addition to the pantheon of unforgettable characters in American fiction.

And in his private dictionary of love, three entries stand out.

Tampa. Just the word makes Tom Chippering's blood curdle. That's where his ex-wife, the faithless Lorna Sue, now lives with a suntanned tycoon whose name Chippering refuses to utter.

Revenge. If Chippering can't get Lorna Sue back, at least he can wreak havoc with her new marriage. (How about some strategically placed lingerie in the tycoon's "ostentatiously upscale Mercedes"?) He also has plans for Lorna Sue's brother, Herbie, with whom she has always had an unnaturally close relationship.

Love. His ex-wife may have disapproved, but is Chippering's fondness for women--especially the nubile coeds who attend his classes--really so wrong? And now love finds a new form: Mrs. Robert Kooshof, the attractive, demanding, and, of course, already married woman who may at last satisfy Chippering's longing for intimacy.

Tim O'Brien--acclaimed for his fiction about the Vietnam War--has now taken on the battle between the sexes with astonishing results. By turns hilarious, outrageous, romantic, and deeply moving, Tomcat in Love gives us a blundering, modern-day Don Juan who embodies the desires and bewilderments of men everywhere.

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Editorial Reviews

The Barnes & Noble Review
September 1998

"In one sense, Tomcat in Love represents a literary departure for me. In a more important sense, however, every book is a departure: new characters, new story, new structure, new rules, new narrative voices, new ways of looking at material that matters to me," O'Brien maintains. "Though I am known as a 'Vietnam writer' - whatever that may be - I have always pegged myself more as a 'love writer,' and in that regard Tomcat in Love is no departure at all. I am still circling, after nearly thirty years, the same old obsession: how far we will go to win love, to keep love, to love ourselves." —Tim O'brien

Hailed as "the best American writer of his generation" (San Francisco Examiner), Tim O'Brien is best known for works of fiction grounded in his experience of the Vietnam War. With the publication of his last novel, In the Lake of the Woods, O'Brien announced his intention to stop writing fiction "for the foreseeable future."

Now, four years later, we invite you to join us in welcoming Tim O'Brien in his return. Meet us in the auditorium to chat about his new novel, tracing one man's misguided, convoluted, relentless quest to reclaim the love of his life - or, perhaps, to find a new love - in Tomcat in Love.

"There can be little on this earth more fundamentally satisfying than a piece of intelligently conceived, impeccably executed vengeance," reflects O'Brien's ever-conniving yet hapless hero and narrator, Thomas H. Chippering, Professor of Linguistics.

Egotistical, verbose, meticulous (hepainstakinglyincludes footnotes in his own narrative), and self-described as "something over forty-nine years of age" with "height and craggy features reminiscent of our sixteenth president," Chippering has been prone to late-night weeping since the recent end of a twenty-year marriage to Lorna Sue, the doe-eyed, raven-haired, pouty-lipped beauty he has adored since the age of seven. Two obstacles stand in the way of their reunion: Lorna Sue's new husband (a hirsute tycoon from Tampa whose name Chippering refuses to utter) and her slavishly devoted, eerily omnipresent brother, Chippering's childhood chum Herbie. Of course, Chippering staunchly denies that his fondness for women - especially his young students at the University of Minnesota - and his fine art of equivocation are in any way responsible for his present state of desperation.

Faith. Roses. Pontiac. Virtue. These words haunt the narrator, as pivotal events in the life of the narrator and Lorna Sue have charged them with emotion. Increasingly, Chippering hungers for revenge, and his thoughts turn to Tampa, where the focus of his obsession now lives, content and oblivious, with her wealthy husband (and her faithful brother nearby). But before heading south to launch his attack, Chippering makes a fateful stop in Owago, Minnesota - the Rock Cornish Hen Capital of the World - to visit his boyhood home. Crumpled and sobbing in his former backyard, he meets the properties current owner, Mrs. Robert Kooshof - a tall, buxom, big-hearted, no-nonsense blonde also reeling from a spouse's betrayal, who soon becomes Chippering's reluctant accomplice, and ultimately, his savior.

In an epic struggle taking him from Minnesota to Florida and back, Chippering hatches devious plots to shatter Lorna Sue's connubial bliss; flirts shamelessly with every woman he meets; suffers public humiliation and the ruin of his career; and risks a fiery death. A complex, despicable and at the same time entirely loveable character, Chippering ultimately comes to grips with the truth - about Lorna Sue, about Herbie, about his own imperious, commitment-phobic self, and ultimately finds salvation in what makes life truly worth living. Wildly funny and surprisingly moving, Tomcat in Love is a vivid, ingenious, unforgettable tale of lust, compulsion, and disillusionment from one of today's most original and gifted writers.

Seattle Times
Enjoyable, moving, often hilarious.
Chicago Tribune
Tim O'Brien is an astonishing writer. Tomcat begins at a high pitch and maintains it.
Kansas City Star
A dark and thoroughly engaging comedy about the danger of obsession and the healing power of love.
Tom Walker
After all the years of deadly serious writingO'Brien has swung from the opposite side of the plate with Tomcat. He's hit a home run. —The Denver Post
Michiko Kakutani
. . .[T]he reader can only wonder at the disparity between the power of . . .earlier books by Mr. Obrien —- distinguished by their inventive storytelling and their evocative depiction of the visceral and emotional realities of war — and the mangled mess that is Tomcat in LoveThe New York Times
Matt Cohen
Tomcat in Love is well -- sometimes very well -- written. Its plot is carefully worked out and becomes more compelling as the novel proceeds. The characters are only mildly believable, but how believable were the characters in Lolita, another book about a verbally gifted romantic?....Well-written and almost always amusing, Tomcat in Love is an entertaining book from a terrific writer whose real strengths appear to lie elsewhere. -- Globe and Mail
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 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 pyschiatrist. 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, 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.

Washington Post Review
Here, for all of you with just enough time to skim the paper as you gulp your morning coffee, is the straight scoop: Tomcat in Love is a wonderful novel, laugh-out-loud funny, one of the best books I've come across in years. My advice, something I've offered only once or twice in 12 years of writing about books . . . is that you waste no more time on this review. Put down the paper. Go out and find a copy of Tomcat in Love now. It really is that good.
Library Journal
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 divorcee 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
Boston Globe
Wickedly realized. . .nobody but O'Brien could have written some of the opening vortexes about passion and meaning.
Michiko Kakutani
. . .[T]he reader can only wonder at the disparity between the power of . . .earlier books by Mr. Obrien --- distinguished by their inventive storytelling and their evocative depiction of the visceral and emotional realities of war -- and the mangled mess that is Tomcat in Love -- The New York Times
Seattle Times
Enjoyable, moving, often hilarious.
Hartford Courant
A laugh-a-minute look at a bewildered man's tragicomic search for love in all the wrong places.
San Francisco Book Review
O'Brien has gone out on a limb, and readers will be hard-pressed not to scurry along after him.
Jane Smiley
Funny stuff. . .Like all comic novels, Tomcat is a complex affair that invites a complex response and offers a complex reward. -- The New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
A surprising departure for the usually somber O'Brien, this time chronicling the pratfalls of a middle-aged would-be Lothario.

Looming over Thomas Chippering's marriage through much of its two decades is the malign presence of his brother-in-law, Herbie Zylstra, a man harboring a peculiarly intense interest in his own sister, Lorna Sue. It's Herbie who finally fragments Tom and Lorna Sue's marriage, by revealing to his sister a series of minor deceits Tom's used to assuage her suspicions of his instability. Her departure and remarriage to a Florida millionaire render the generally resilient Tom alternately melancholy and manic, leading him to brood on the fact that 'we are all pursued by the ghosts of our own history, our lost loves, our blunders, our broken promises and grieving wives.'

Not unsurprisingly, this linguistics professor and (as he mentions on more than one occasion) war hero, tries first, haplessly, to win back his wife and then, also unsurprisingly, decides on revenge. He can at least pay back the twisted Herbie—'though of course matters quickly veer out of control.

While he does manage to derail Lorna Sue's marriage temporarily, he also becomes involved with the beautiful, and decidedly self-reliant, Mrs. Kooshof, whose husband is languishing in prison. Tom's decline, meanwhile, becomes a headlong rush as he's exposed by Herbie, thrashed in front of his students by Lorna Sue's husband, bereft of his job, of Mrs. Kooshof (seemingly), and briefly of his sanity. Because this is pitched as a farce, much of what happens is meant to be drolly funny and often is. But Tom is exceedingly garrulous (his first-person narrative even sports footnotes), and there are a fewpratfalls too many.

From the Publisher

"Like all comic novels, Tomcat is a complex affair that invites a complex response and offers a complex reward."
The New York Times Book Review

"Tomcat in Love is a wonderful novel, laugh-out-loud funny, one of the best books I've come across in years. . . . Go out and find a copy . . . now. It really is that good."
—Washington Post

"Tim O'Brien knows cold the spiraling insularity of obsession. . . . Thomas Chippering . . . is wickedly realized. The agility and intelligence that created this pathos-ridden romantic make one marvel at Tim O'Brien's gifts."
Boston Sunday Globe

"A great American novel."
—Atlanta Journal-Constitution

"It's a plain fact; don't argue. Tim O'Brien can flat-out write. . . . Quirky and immensely satisfying. . . . After all the years of deadly serious writing, O'Brien has swung from the opposite side of the plate with Tomcat. He's hit a home run."
Denver Post

"Wildly funny, accusingly poignant. . . . O'Brien has done a masterful job of depicting all those loose ends, those unmailed valentines, that final abiding question we have all . . . asked of the loved one who has left us behind."
San Diego Union Tribune

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Product Details

Broadway Books
Publication date:
Edition description:
1 ED
Product dimensions:
6.63(w) x 9.55(h) x 1.15(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


I begin with the ridiculous, in June 1952, middle-century Minnesota, on that silvery-hot morning when Herbie Zylstra and I nailed two plywood hoards 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."


    "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?"


    "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.

    After the nailing, I did not see Herbie for almost a year.

    He was dispatched to a Jesuit boys' school up in the Twin Cities--a "hospital school," my mother called it, which was probably close to accurate--and when he returned the following summer, in early June, things were different. I had new friends; Herbie had a new personality. He was a loner now. Silent and self-absorbed. The transformation was remarkable, edging up on radical, and if I were a believer in the Pauline epiphanies, or in divine intervention, which I most certainly am not, I might be tempted to argue that Herbie had been visited by some higher power during his stay with the good Catholics of Minneapolis.

    Contrition, so rare in any of us, seemed to have struck Herbie Zylstra as a nine-year-old.

    This is not to say that the reformation was absolute. He still had a temper; he could go hard and hostile. In fact, from all I could tell, the new Herbie was wound tighter than ever. The sweetness was gone. The naive, impish exuberance had been sucked out of him, recklessness replaced by qualities much more stern--something zealous and rigid, a severity of spirit that seemed a little eerie.

    For the next eight years, until he graduated from high school, Herbie and I went our separate ways. Not unfriendly but never friendly either. He kept to himself, earned respectable grades, played a skillful forward on a basketball team that twice advanced to the state semifinals. In a cautious way, most people admired him, especially girls. He moved well. He was tall and lean, with gray eyes and wavy brown hair, but beneath this handsome exterior was a quiet, smoldering aloofness. There were times, I thought, when he gave off a dangerous glow, like fire in a jar, rectitude squeezed inside muscle--a physicality I envied.

    On the surface, at least, things were neutral between us. I lived in one world, Herbie in another, and our childhood was never a topic of discussion. There were no topics at all. In school, or at church, his eyes swept across me as if I were air; he avoided me at parties, rarely even nodded when we happened to cross paths on a sidewalk. In a way, it seemed, my old pal had willfully erased me from memory, along with our joint history, and I have since come to suspect that this was a means of wiping away his own shame, obliterating guilt by obliterating me. I was invisible to him: not even a ghost.

    All this changed when I began dating Lorna Sue in the middle of my junior year.

    To put it simply, Herbie did not approve.

    In the school hallways, in classes and the cafeteria, I could feel him glaring at me like an Old Testament judge, wary and suspicious, alert to sin, his bright gray eyes locking onto me with what can only be called loathing. When I complained to Lorna Sue, she laughed and told me to forget it. "That's Herbie," she said. "That's not us."

    I nodded. "Maybe. But it feels strange."

    "Just ignore him," she said. "Pretend you don't notice. It'll drive him crazy."

    "I don't want him crazy."

    Lorna Sue shrugged and went silent. "All right, I'll talk to him," she finally said, then hesitated. "Except I don't think . . . I mean, I don't think you'll ever please him. Nobody can. That's how he is."


    "You know. The big brother."

    "Okay, sure," I said, "but there's something else too. It feels like--I don't know-almost like he owns you."

    "Well, he doesn't," said Lorna Sue, but again there was a wrinkle in her voice, as if she was afraid of something. She held up the palm of her left hand, displaying a small, star-shaped, purply-red scar. "The opposite, Tommy. I own him."

    I nodded and said, "Right."

    Lorna Sue said, "Right."

    But what she meant, exactly, was a puzzle to me, and always will be.

    From that point onward, well into adulthood, Herbie seemed possessed by a sullen, brooding jealousy, as if I had stolen his sister from him or somehow defiled her. Even when Lorna Sue and I were alone--in a movie theater, in my father's Pontiac--I could sense his shadow nearby: a drop in the temperature, a pressure against my spine.

    It's a mystery. Four decades have passed, so much pain, so much horror, yet I cannot begin to understand the causes. All I know is this: I am alone now.

    Herbie killed my marriage.

    He murdered love. Intentionally. Systematically. He found the weakness in me, and he showed it to Lorna Sue.

    Why me? I cannot help but wonder. I deserved better. By any estimate I am a man of some majesty, tall and eye-catching, no paunch, no deficits worth the spill of ink. I am a full professor of linguistics, the author of twenty-one highly regarded monographs; I am beloved by my students, esteemed by my academic confederates. And, yes--beyond everything--I adored Lorna Sue with every fiery corpuscle of my being.

    So why?

    In my bleakest moods, when black gets blackest, I think of it as raw perversion: Herbie coveted his own sister. Which is a fact. The stone truth. He was in love with her. More generously, I will sometimes concede that it was not sexual love, or not entirely, and that Herbie was driven by the obsessions of a penitent, a torturer turned savior. Partly, too, I am quite certain that Herbie secretly associated me with his own guilt. I was present at the beginning. My backyard, my plywood, my green paint. And it was my father who had failed to deliver an airplane engine, who had instead brought home a turtle named Toby.

    Toby: it's an obscenity to me.

    I lie awake nights, mulling things over.

    Surely the Catholics were involved.

    That's another one--Catholic. I fall sick driving past churches. I see a priest, I think divorce.

    Catholic. I am full of hatred.

    And this too: yellow. Even color gets colored. Lemon drops taste like betrayal.

    "Die!" Herbie used to yell, then he'd bank into an imaginary bombing run toward his big yellow house.

    That house: big and spooky and broken down, three stories plus an attic, and even as a kid I knew things were not happy inside. Too much noise, too much clutter. Its sickly yellowness. The unmowed lawn. The screen windows patched up with newspapers and packing tape. In the hallways and living areas I detected the smell of mildew, a corrupt, musty stink, like the tombs of some abandoned old necropolis. On the walls--in virtually every room--were framed photographs of Herbie and Lorna Sue. In most cases they stood side by side, brother and sister, but in poses that suggested something vaguely beatific, almost saintly, like a pair of child martyrs: fingers interlocked, gazes elevated.

    This house--this mausoleum--was their place, foreign to me, and sinister.

    I hated it. I hated its theirness.

    Let me offer an instance. A night back in high school, junior year: Lorna Sue and I had parked in her driveway after a late movie. (Radio music, a gauzy half-moon, my father's green Pontiac.) Lorna Sue had pulled off her shirt and bra, always an astonishing moment, and I was lost in all the plenitude. Breasts were new to me--I had not yet mastered my enthusiasm--and some time passed before I realized that Lorna Sue was crying. Not loud. A whimper. After a moment she seemed to shudder, then she pushed me away, hunched forward, and slipped her shirt on. I remember reaching out, half apologizing, but Lorna Sue twisted sideways in her seat. "Stop," she said. "just please stop."

    "I didn't mean--"

    "They're watching."

    Lorna Sue motioned at the house. A large bay window overlooked the driveway, perhaps ten feet away, and in the dark I could make out five or six white faces pressed up against the glass. The features were blurry. Like clouded moons: hazy, round, softly lighted. There was a noise, I remember, which must have been laughter, and then the faces began vanishing one by one, each flickering out in turn, like the candles on an altar being extinguished by some ghostly celebrant. After a few seconds only a single face remained, which even in the dark I knew had to be Herbie's.

    I almost nodded.

    Unnatural, to say the least, and for whatever reasons it occurred to me that this entire family was in love with Lorna Sue, or obsessed by her, or caught up in some perverse form of idolatry. Those faces at the window. The scar on her hand. The evidence of intuition.

    In the driveway that night, Lorna Sue sat motionless for a time, cradling her chest.

    "That house," she whispered. "God, that house."

    The next day Herbie approached me after school.

    "Hey, Don Juan," he said.

    He stared at me for longer than was comfortable, ice in his eyes, then he opened up a brown paper bag, reached inside, and passed over to me the Indian-head ornament off my father's Pontiac. A cryptic moment. Frightening too. Herbie's eyes--so full of love, so full of hatred.

    And years later, when Lorna Sue announced her plans for divorce, she would give me the same cold stare, as if I were an infidel, as if there were things I could never understand.

    We were married for two fascinating decades. She divorced me eight months ago.


    The answer is convoluted. (Keep in mind your own tangled history, how your husband flew off to Fiji in the company of a redhead barely half his age. Confusing, yes? Loose ends? Numerous unknowns?) In my own case, I had hidden certain mildly incriminating documents beneath the mattress of our bed--Lorna Sue's and mine. These materials were perfectly safe, I reasoned, for in our twenty years together I had yet to see Lorna Sue turn that mattress, or replace the box springs, or otherwise investigate the regions of our love.

    Mattress. The word chills me.

    How Herbie came to discover my private papers is difficult to imagine, and I lie sleepless at night, violated, envisioning his stealth.

    They're watching, she had said. He's watching.

    The documents themselves were unimportant. Evidence of minor deceit. What matters is how Herbie came to discover such intimate artifacts from my life. If he knew about the documents--their whereabouts, their implications--what else had he invaded? What else did he know?

    And by what means?

    Did he steal a key? Was he snooping even last winter, while Lorna Sue and I vacationed in Tampa? Outside Tampa, to be literal, at a resort called Seaside Dunes, where we played minigolf and browned ourselves in the sunlight, and where one afternoon Lorna Sue befriended a certain hairy gentleman whose name I have vowed never again to utter. (It is a promise, however, often broken in my thoughts. Kersten. Whom she calls Kerr. Whom I call shit. Preposterous name, oily personality.) At what precise instant, I wonder, did Lorna Sue fall in love with him? And out of love with me? When the gentleman sucked in his belly? When he approached our patch of sand without invitation? When he removed his shirt and puffed out his chest and introduced himself with those two vile syllables that rhyme with Thurston?

    I doubt it. Not then. The arms of conscious liaison probably opened later, several months after we had returned, on that humid evening when Herbie retrieved my secrets from beneath our mattress.

    I wonder, too, how long Herbie stalked me. Did he steal into my bedroom? Did he open cupboards, sniff my laundry, shake out books, finally take notice of our king-size mattress?

    Who knows?

    In truth, I must admit, I had been pushing my luck for many weeks, terrified of discovery, aware of the consequences. No doubt I should have relocated my incriminating cache. Or destroyed it. And yet, as so often happens, ordinary life conspired against common sense. (I am a teacher. I have stress syndrome. I married a woman with a hole in her hand.) The point is this: daily flux presents its own ample store of worries, even without betrayal, and in this instance I postponed an act of simple sanity and self-preservation. I delayed. I forgot.

    "There," Herbie said.

    The documents lay on our brass bed like a losing hand of poker.

    "There," said Herbie, "is your angel."

    My transgression? A misdemeanor by any standard. After our return from Tampa, Lorna Sue had withdrawn inside herself, going quiet and preoccupied, and in a very real sense, I believe, she was still sitting on that sunny beach, still chatting with her handsome new friend, still giggling at the hairy bastard's offensive little jokes. (I was there, for God's sake. I feigned sleep. I listened to the frothy sounds of surf and seduction.) In any case, she had detached herself from me, and I felt her absence as surely as I had once felt her thereness, her everness, her absolute and indestructible love. (If a love dies, how can such love be love? By what linguistic contrivance?) And so I began to sound the vastness of Lorna Sue's absence, or the stirrings of discontent, or whatever else it is that a man feels as his wife contemplates a furry, pompous, pre-embalmed, ridiculously well-tanned tycoon.

    The signs were everywhere. She was not merely absentminded; she was absent. She was seeking an excuse, I believe, and Herbie promptly provided her with a very tidy one.

    On that humid evening he rang the doorbell. He had the nerve to shake my hand. He kissed Lorna Sue. He marched directly to our bedroom, to our brass bed, and without emotion he raided my life. He dropped the documents on our handmade checkered quilt. "Angel," he said.

    As mentioned, my crime was minor. Certainly pardonable by love.

    The documents were these: fourteen uncashed checks made out to one Dr. Ralph Constantine. A psychiatrist. A phony psychiatrist, actually, whose name I had invented. What was I trying to prove? My equilibrium, no doubt. That it was unfair of her to suggest that our troubles were caused by my own jealousy and paranoia. And so I had concocted a counterfeit psychiatrist to solve a counterfeit problem--a sacred lie to save a marriage.

    Not so horrible, do you think?

    "Angel--your deceiving angel," said Herbie, who then shrugged and strolled out of our bedroom and left me with a future no longer worth pursuing. (Do not forget: Herbie worshiped Lorna Sue. Adoration in the biblical sense. He wanted his sister back.)

    For months, especially after our return from Tampa, Lorna Sue had been insisting that I seek help. Her phrase: "Seek help." And so like my father--like all of us at one time or another--I had issued a promise that could not be honored. I did not need a counselor. I wasn't blind, I wasn't sick. Nor was I crazy. Granted, I had taken to fervent noontide praying; I had begun talking in colors--that's how Lorna Sue described it--at least in my sleep. But she had left me. She had absented herself, drifting away, dreaming of a tycoon, and none of this was the product of my imagination. Yet I loved her, so much, and still do, and always will, because that is love, the unending alwaysness, and I therefore wished only to please her, to reduce her absence, to pretend I was under the care of a fictitious shrink by the name of Dr. Ralph Constantine. All this in the hope of winning back the love I had felt dissolving on a beach outside Tampa.

    A few weeks after the divorce I paid a covert visit to Lorna Sue and her new husband. Watched from a distance as she squeezed the gentleman's arm outside a real-estate office in downtown Tampa. He's a high roller. Lorna Sue seems proud of that. She's well dressed. Expensive jewelry, tanned skin, very beautiful. Herbie lives nearby. Watchful. I give the marriage two years.

    One last example. The word mice. Plural and ridiculous.

    When I was twelve, Lorna Sue got angry at me for kissing a girl named Faith Graffenteen. "I didn't mean to," I told her. "It was mostly an accident."

    "You kissed her face," Lorna Sue said. "You kissed her snotty nose."

    "I didn't mean that either," I said, then waited a moment. "So did Faith like it?"

    "God, no," said Lorna Sue. "She puked mice. And don't ever try it with me, Tommy."

    "Who wants to?" I said.


    We were walking down North Fourth Street. Past Mrs. Catchitt's house. Past St. Paul's Catholic Church. It was Christmas break, no school for two weeks.

    "It just makes me sick," said Lorna Sue. "I mean, you kissed her snot. That's what Faith said--you almost sucked out all her snot. And not just Faith either. You kissed Beth. You kissed Linda and Corinne and Ruthie and Pam and I don't even know who else. And you wrote their names down. I found your stupid list." She handed me a scrap of notebook paper. "It's pretty sickening. You're not even a teenager yet."

    I tucked the list in my pocket. Lorna Sue had her brother's temper, her brother's sensitivity to injustice. We kept walking.

    "So why?" she finally said.

    "Faith made me," I said. "Besides, I'll bet you kissed almost everybody. That time with Dennis in the warming house. That time with Jerry Powell."

    "They love me," Lorna Sue said.

    "Not Dennis. Dennis doesn't."

    Lorna Sue frowned. "You want to kiss me?"


    "Well, don't even dare. Herbie'll kill you."

    We stopped in front of her house. Lorna Sue slipped her bad hand into a parka pocket.

    "Do you love Faith?"

    "Probably," I said. "She still forced me."

    "For how long?"

    "Just the regular time. Barely a second--it wasn't even real kissing."

    "I don't mean that," Lorna Sue said. "I mean, how long will you love her?"

    "I don't know. For a while."

    "But God, she puked mice! Rabbit guts and mice."

    "All right," I said. "I'll stop."

    "Do you love me?"

    "I guess so."

    Lorna Sue laughed. "Herbie'll kill you."

    Does language contain history the way plywood contains flight? Are we bruised each day of our lives by syllabic collisions, our spirits slashed by combinations of vowel and consonant? At a cocktail party, say, or at a ball game, or at our daughter's wedding, would you feel Death slide between your ribs if someone were to utter the name of your ex-husband? Can a color cause bad dreams? Can a cornfield make you cry? Do we irradiate language by the lives we lead? Angel, engine, cross, Indian, plywood, Pontiac, mattress, rabbit guts and mice . . . Is your ex still in the tropics? Is he happy? Should you have been there to stop him, or to help him, or to bear witness as he made his way to a new lover and a new life? If the opportunity arose, would revenge be an option? Against whom--a sick family, a jealous brother? Revenge how? Hammer and nails? A pithy sentence, a squeal of outrage? Would it occur to you that your very vows of troth, your wedding pledge, had been a betrayal from the start, that you had been doomed by a crazy lie, that you were never meant to have and to hold?

    Would a trip to Florida be in order? Maybe next month? Maybe the month after?

    Can a word stop your heart as surely as arsenic?

    Turtle. Tampa.

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Meet the Author

TIM O’BRIEN received the 1979 National Book Award in fiction for Going After Cacciato. His other works include the Pulitzer finalist and a New York Times Book of the Century, The Things They Carried; the acclaimed novels Tomcat in Love and Northern Lights; and the national bestselling memoir If I Die in a Combat Zone. His novel In the Lake of the Woods received the James Fenimore Cooper Prize from the Society of American Historians and was named the best novel of 1994 by Time. In 2010 he received the Katherine Anne Porter Award for a distinguished lifetime body of work and in 2012 he received the Richard C. Holbrooke Distinguished Achievement Award from the Dayton Literary Peace Prize Foundation. He was awarded the Pritzker Literature Award for Lifetime Achievement in Military Writing in 2013.

Brief Biography

Date of Birth:
October 1, 1946
Place of Birth:
Austin, Minnesota
B.A., Macalester College, 1968; Graduate study at Harvard University

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