WALKING THE CAT
BY TOMMY "TIP" PAINE:
Gordon Liddy Is My Muse II
By John Calvin Batchelor
Linden Press/Simon and Schuster. 301 pp. $19.95
"Walking the Cat by Tommy 'Tip' Paine: Gordon Liddy Is My Muse II" is a book with a title that goes on forever, and I don't know why.
Gordon Liddy isn't in this book. He figured in that other John Calvin Batchelor book, "Gordon Liddy Is My Muse by Tommy 'Tip' Paine," which came out last year. "Gordon Liddy Is My Muse" was a loosely connected series of short detective stories starring Batchelor's hero-author "Tip" Paine.
Paine's obsession with Liddy, Watergate and his (fictional) unmasking of Deep Throat gave that first book a topical coherence largely missing in "Walking the Cat," which appears to substitute for it a fuzzy paranoid xenophobia directed at (mainly) Korean businessmen.
According to Tip Paine, the phrase "walking the cat" is U.S. military intelligence jargon for counterintelligence, for "old-fashioned sleuthing."
"The cat, in this case," he says, "is the undomesticated truth. If you want to know the truth of the bad guys -- who they are, how they did it -- you must walk the cat backward and forward."
But the plot of "Walking the Cat," the novel, is a narrow, crooked road, and Tommy's cat ends up getting run over a few times before she finds her way home.
Walking the cat leads Tommy to a Malaysian opium den; a Korean mudang, or witch, who retrieves souls from Hell for a price; a Korean bank bent on forming a robot-toy cartel; a horrifying little intelligence officer whose idea of setting up an interview includes whacking cripples with a truncheon; and a pair of straight-arrow military intelligence agents named Jesse and Cole (Jesse James and Cole Younger, get it?).
It all begins with Tip, a hot-shot spy novelist and screenwriter, snoozing away in an Oblomovian torpor, watching videos and playing computer games in his Manhattan co-op. One evening he discovers his neighbor's Korean governess, Rosie Yip, scavenging in his garbage bins for leftover turkey.
Rosie is an orphan of the Korean Conflict. Snacking out of garbage cans is her reflex response to stress harking back to her days as a street child in Seoul. Amazingly, she is a movie freak too, and can quote Tommy's screenplays verbatim. (Sound suspicious? Rosie is also a Korean Central Intelligence agent and more.)
Rosie enlists Tommy's help in rescuing her weepy, opium-addicted boss, Charlie Purcell, from -- choose one and fill in the blank: nefarious Red agents, a gang of business partners with the manners of piranha fish, or blackmailers and his own treasonous past.
Charlie was a Spec. 4 in the U.S. Army during its post-Vietnam trough. Stationed in Korea, he sold out his country, or at least his motor pool, to a North Korean agent known as Mr. Kim. Since then, he has been bleeding away his banking fortune to mysterious blackmailers who communicate via telex and sign themselves after battleships sunk at Pearl Harbor (e.g., Arizona).
Like the Korean mudang, Tommy must descend into Hell to redeem Charlie's polluted soul.
Hell, in this case, is Seoul, heartland of the new Asian Miracle/Menace. Tommy waxes a trifle melodramatic on the subjects of Korea, Korean businessmen and the "monster" that lives in the mountainous Iron Triangle north of Seoul. But he delivers a superb peroration on the yo-yo course of the Korean War and the U.S. 2nd Division's heroic stand at Wonju that leaves Jesse and Cole with their mouths open.
"Jesse and Cole circled me, staring hard at the Iron Triangle. ... They were so persuaded, they wanted to make sure the bugles weren't blowing and the hordes weren't storming."
Tip Paine talks incessantly and engagingly -- mostly to the reader, but often to himself in the guise of Holmes Paine, the sleuth of Baker Street, and sometimes to the expensive lap-top computer he carries around for noting clues and replaying World War II carrier battles.
Batchelor is an offbeat writer whose earlier novels, including "The Further Adventures of Halley's Comet" and "The Birth of the People's Republic of Antarctica," earned him a reputation as a wacky cross between Kurt Vonnegut and Thomas Pynchon.
His Tip Paine books smell faintly of potboiler and aren't likely to enhance his literary reputation. But "Walking the Cat" could be a hit in the airports and on the beaches this summer.
The reviewer's most recent book is a novel, "The South Will Rise at Noon."