I’ve had a few Tobias Wolff novels on my shelf for years now, but until recently I’d never picked one out to read it. I’m not sure why. Perhaps because I acquire books quickly, and the new additions tend to take precedence over the old. Perhaps it was because I knew nothing about Tobias Wolff or these books. But on the blogs (again, trusted blogs are the best place to get word of books) I’d been picking up an esteem for Wolff that helped me realize that this gap in my reading was larger than I’d thought. I pulled Old School (2003) off the shelf. I remember thinking, “Well, I’ll give a it a few minutes to see how it feels.” As you can see by the presence of this review, that was all it took.
Wolff is best known for his short stories and his memoirs, This Boy’s Life probably being the most famous (I have that next on my list). Indeed, Old School is only his second novel, coming over twenty-five years after his first, Ugly Rumors (1975), which was never published in the United States and has never been reissued (you can get it from Amazonfor a mere $894.50 to $1790.63, if you’re that interested in a book the author has essentially repudiated — Old School was touted as his first novel). Despite my own ignorance of Tobias Wolff, I have been conscious of him for a long time by word of mouth. To me, it is impressive that in today’s market a writer can become so well known primarily through novellas, short stories, and memoirs. But after reading Old School, it is not surprising that Wolff should be well regarded. This book is brilliant from page one to the end.
As you may guess from the cover and title, we’re in the familiar boys’ school setting from a time period just before the political upheaval of the 1960s. The first paragraph, however, is fresh and all misgivings that this might be a book covering overworked ground are set to rest.
Robert Frost made his visit in November of 1960, just a week after the general election. It tells you something about our school that the prospect of his arrival cooked up more interest than the contest between Nixon and Kennedy, which for most of us was no contest at all. Nixon was a straight arrow and a scold. If he’d been one of us we would have glued his shoes to the floor. Kennedy, though — here was a warrior, an ironist, terse and unhysterical. He had his clothes under control. His wife was a fox. And he read and wrote books, one of which, Why England Slept, was required reading in my honors history seminar. We recognized Kennedy; we could still see in him the boy who would have been a favorite here, roguish and literate, with that almost formal insouciance that both enacted and discounted the fact of his class.
Each year several famous authors visit the school. It is the privilege of all to submit a piece of writing (fiction or poetry, depending on the visiting author). The author then selects one student as the winner, and that student gets to take a stroll around the garden one-on-one with the author. Our narrator is a budding author struggling to find his voice. So far he’s never been able to be completely honest with himself, and his writing shows it. He is a great reader, though, and has a position on the school’s literary journal wherein he gets to help select which of the students’ pieces get published. He loves literature and deeply hopes to win a meeting with one of the visiting authors. In a way, he thinks such a meeting might just get his own writing career started.
All these writers were welcomed by other writers. It seemed to follow that you needed such a welcome, yet before this could happen you somehow, anyhow, had to meet the writer who was to welcome you. My idea of how this worked wasn’t low or even practical. I never thought about making connections. My aspirations were mystical. I wanted to receive the laying on of hands that had written living stories and poems, hands that had touched the hands of other writers. I wanted to be anointed.
These author visits keep the book’s narrative on track, moving us methodically through the school year and through the development of this artist and of art. First we have Robert Frost, a nice representation of conventional formalism passing away, but not without a fight. Next comes the incendiary Ayn Rand, whom many in the school didn’t want to invite. The narrator becomes infatuated with The Fountainhead and is eventually baffled by how much it changes his perspective and his relationships. It’s a tragic part of the novel, and the role of fiction is excellently discussed in these passages and when Rand herself visits the school. The last scheduled author for the school year is the soon-to-be-late Hemingway.
I myself was in debt to Hemingway — up to my ears. So was Bill. We even talked like Hemingway characters, through in travesty, as if to deny our discipleship: That is your bed, and it is a good bed, and you must make it and you must make it well. Or: Today is the day of meatloaf. The meatloaf is swell. It is swell but when it is gone the not-having meatloaf will be tragic and the meatloaf man will not come anymore.
Wolff doesn’t let the story hang on these author visits, however, as central to the book as they are. Despite our narrator’s youthful self being stifled, the writer he becomes — the writer who writes this account — approaches this memoir of sorts with a cutting honesty but without easily answering the dilemmas encountered this school year. Nothing is easily resolved, if it is ever resolved. The end, in fact, is a sort of pseudo-resolution, and it’s excellent. I’m not giving anything away when I say that Wolff completely reworks the perspective of the novel in the last few pages, not through a surprise twist or an epiphany but by unconventionally straying from the narrative he’d been so strict to follow up to that point, playing with our notions of the narrator’s aesthetic as well as his personal development — and justifications.