by Tobias Wolff
Published by Knopf
195 pages, 2003
This Boy's Writing Life
Reviewed by David Abrams
It's hard to believe Old School is Tobias Wolff's first novel. After a well-established career in writing -- which includes the memoir This Boy's Life and the short story collections The Night in Question and Back in the World -- Wolff finally delivers the novel he was destined to write.
The anticipation has been more than fulfilled by a book that's complex in thought but goes down easy with Wolff's forthright approach to language and character.
Narrated by an unnamed student at an all-boys prep school in 1960s New England, Old School (no relation to the recent comedy movie) charts the events of one academic year, laying bare the ambition and rivalry between students. The narrator, a middle-class kid riding on a scholarship, adopts an attitude of reckless disregard for his classmates, but at the core he's consumed by jealousy:
Class was a fact. Not just the clothes a boy wore, but how he wore them. How he spent his summers. The sports he knew how to play. His way of turning cold at the mention of money, or at the spectacle of ambition too nakedly revealed. You felt it as a depth of ease in certain boys, their innate, affable assurance that they would not have to struggle for a place in the world, that it had already been reserved for them.
The story is landmarked by three major events -- visits from famous writers -- which will ultimately make or break some of the students. Prior to each visit, the school holds a writing contest among the boys; the coveted prize is the chance to have a private audience with the visiting writer -- in this case, Robert Frost, Ayn Rand and Ernest Hemingway.
Our protagonist loses the first two contests, but finds his third attempt -- a story laying bare the anguish over hiding his Jewish roots -- chosen by Hemingway, the writer he most reveres in the world.
Knowing that the greatest of living writers would soon be among us made us a little crazy with self-importance. Nor was it just the literary boys who got worked up; it seemed like most of the class planned to enter a story. As Picasso and Ted Williams knew Hemingway, as Kennedy knew Hemingway, one of us would soon know Hemingway and so be raised to that company.
It's a safe bet Hemingway is Wolff's idol, too, since the book's voice is as focused and calloused as any writing you'd find on Papa's pages. Old School is sedately paced and demands that we read it with close attention and promises rich rewards during future rereads.
Wolff's own often-duplicitous life is well-known to those who have read his memoirs and even his short stories, most of which are spiced with autobiography. In Old School the line between fiction and fact feels thinner than ever before. You can see exactly what Wolff is signaling when the narrator tells us:
We had been taught not to confuse the writer with the work, but I couldn't separate my picture of Nick [Adams] from my picture of Hemingway. And I had a sense that I wasn't really supposed to, that a certain confusion of author and character was intended.
Such coziness with the material allows Wolff to precisely capture the sensory details of prep school life: The chapel windows blazing red on winter afternoons. The comradely sound of the glee club practicing, the scrape of skates on the outdoor rink, a certain chair in the library.
The novel will probably find its biggest and most loyal audience with writers themselves. Wolff describes the literary life with the intimacy of a lover:
The life that produces writing can't be written about. It is a life carried on without the knowledge eve of the writer, below the mind's business and noise, in deep unlit shafts where phantom messengers struggle toward us, killing one another along the way; and when a few survivors break through to our attention they are received as blandly as waiters bringing more coffee.
Anyone who has struggled to get words on a page will get positively misty-eyed when reading a paragraph like that.
Ultimately, like the story of the Prodigal Son (which Wolff uses like a soprano's trill in the book's final, operatic sentence), we learn that even the most fraudulent behavior can be forgiven. Though it could have turned into a literary Dead Poets Society, Old School shies away from the easy path and takes us into a darker forest tangled with falsehoods, regrets and redemptions. | January 2004
David Abrams is a January Magazine contributing editor. He has written for Esquire, Glimmer Train Stories, The Greensboro Review, The Readerville Journal and other literary magazines.