Tobias Wolff: Old School

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.

Old-School

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.

25 thoughts on “Tobias Wolff: Old School

  1. Nadia says:

    Sounds like quite a read. I have it on my shelf and have yet to read it, but I think I will now put it on my list of books to read this summer. I like the idea of how each author that comes to visit brings out something in the narrator that helps him to develop his writing. Also I love the idea of reading about a visit from Ayn Rand – what a visit that would! Great post!

  2. Trevor says:

    I wonder, Nadia, is Tobias Wolff one of those writers many of us have bought but not read? I know a few other people who have some of his books but have never picked them up. I’m glad I’m over whatever barrier there is. You’ll be glad you are too!

  3. Frances says:

    I think I have read everything Wolff has published, and whole-heartedly recommend his latest short story collection Our Story Begins. Love your comment here about the ending of the novel. So many friends have complained to me about it. Have always thought that the short story format at which he excels contributed to the nature of the ending. No need to provide closure in the expected manner as the story continues whether or not that might be on paper or not. Something to that effect.

  4. Trevor says:

    Thanks for your words about the ending, Frances. While I don’t mind convention, when a writer can break convention without making “breaking convention” the reason for breaking convention, I am always grateful. And I thought, in a way, that the ending actually brought the feel of the novel back to the “old school” era and gave the novel and “old school” feel, despite it all.

    I have heard from a good source that Our Story Begins is excellent, and I look forward to getting into Wolff’s short stories. I don’t have any of them yet, though, and since I do have This Boy’s Life on the shelf too, I look forward to reading it next!

  5. Randy says:

    I fell in love with Wolf’s short stories long ago. Back in the World particularly. I reside in the same region as he and his former fishin’ buds, Richard Ford and Raymond Carver… I have been meaning to try his Novels.

  6. Trevor says:

    Thanks for stopping by Randy. I was actually just checking out your new site, by the way. Looks excellent, and I look forward to your reviews (and comments)! By the way, now that you’ve commented here and I’ve approved it, no need to wait for my approval again (spammer, grumble).

    EDIT: That last bit should read “(spam, grumble)” or maybe “(spammers, grumble)” and is meant to refer to the reasoning behind the first-time commenter moderation and not to Randy’s comment :) .

  7. Isabel says:

    I read this work last summer. I really enjoyed it. I also tried not to give away too much in my review. It was hard, since it’s short.

  8. Isabel says:

    If you need a vacation, Mr. Woolf will be honored in November in Georgetown, TX (somewhat near Austin)

    http://southwestern.edu/library/writers-voice/Tobias_Wolff/index.html

  9. Trevor says:

    Thanks for the info, Isabel. Are you going to go?

  10. Thanks for this Trevor — I am a sucker for “school” books (as my next post will show, in a much lighter vein) and I did not know about this one. I will be ordering it pronto.

    I am working my way,very slowly, through Our Story Begins. While all short story writers benefit from being read in a slowish, disciplined fashion, Wolff positively demands it — not unlike Richard Yates. It looks from your review that I might find this book a little more friendly — I certainly like the premise.

  11. Trevor says:

    I hesitate to make promises about books, Kevin, but based on your interests and on the author’s skill and on the book itself, I’m pretty certain you’ll enjoy this one. I look forward to your thoughts.

    By the way, what are some of your favorite “school” books? I know you liked Yates’s A Good Schoo and Knowles A Separate Peace, and I know there are several out there, but what are some of the other classics? I have to throw in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, it being one of my favorite books of all time.

  12. Off the top of my head:

    The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark
    To Serve Them All My Days, R.F. Delderfield
    Fifth Business, Robertson Davies (part one of the Deptford Trilogy which goes well beyond “school” but carries echoes of it throughout)
    Decline and Fall, Evelyn Waugh (okay, it is college, but still)
    The Secret History, Donna Tartt (so popular that, according to the NY Times, the Strand won’t even buy paperback versions from the book-pickers of Manhattan because it already has too many)

    I know I am short on British ones here but I am too lazy to go down to the basement and scan the shelves. Sorry about that.

  13. Sorry, I forgot the two I will be posting on in a couple of days (both excellent reads, a debt of gratitude is owed to Mrs. Berrett):

    All Souls, Christine Schutt (runner-up in this year’s Pulitzer)
    The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, E. Lockhart

  14. Trevor says:

    We just purchased All Souls, Kevin. I’m sure my wife will read it first, but I’m going to have to read Frankie too.

    By the way, thanks for the list above. Both of us here enjoy “school” books too, and your list points out a few we hadn’t heard of. It also reminded me of Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, which is only a “school” book on the side, but the Oxford atmosphere runs through. If more come to mind, I wouldn’t mind creating a bit of list on this post for anyone interested!

  15. If you are willing to move into college ranks:

    Stoner by John Williams — check out the NYRB description here http://www.nybooks.com/shop/product?product_id=5423
    Robertson Davies Cornish Trilogy (The Rebel Angels, What’s Bred in the Bone and The Lyre of Orpheus). Penguin has published them all in a single volume.

    And one of my favorite (and not well-known) authors, Keith Maillard, offers two possibilities:
    Gloria, a rich girl grows up in Raysburg (Maillard’s take on Wheeling), West Virginia in the 1950s. (It includes great takes on the sorority and majorette culture — I kid you not — with a great sub-theme on the mid-West country club culture.) Hard to find, however.
    Even better (and easier to buy) is his tetralogy, Difficulty in the Beginning. Running is set in the Raysburg Military Academy, the hero moves on to the University of West Virginia in Morgantown, dodges the draft as a student in Toronto in Lyndon Johnson and the Majorettes and returns to the States and the hippie radical culture in Looking Good. As someone who grew up in the 1960s (and sheltered more than the occasional draft dodger) these four books get my vote as the best portrayal of what those times were like. I don’t know for sure, but I have always assumed Maillard (who has lived in British Columbia for some decades) was himself a draft dodger.

  16. Trevor says:

    I was at the bookstore last night and had Stoner in my hands. Ended up not getting it. The good news is that I’ve had that book in my hands a few times, so it’ll not be forgotten like many other books I pull of the bookstore shelf from time to time.

    Of the others you mention here, I’ve heard of none. Thanks for the good list, Kevin!

  17. Isabel says:

    I don’t know whether I can go to the lecture in Texas.

    I just started a job and have no vacation right now.

    I am hoping to go out of state, but that would be in October.

  18. I don’t particularly like school books, but you’ve still definitely tempted me here Trevor. As indeed do the comparisons upthread with Carver and Yates. Good company.

    On school books more generally, I can second Kevin’s recommendation of:

    – The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark – this is excellent, truly superb. Very, very clever.

    – Decline and Fall, Evelyn Waugh – not I think his best but very enjoyable and well worth reading.
    – The Secret History, Donna Tartt – an excellent thriller, too good if anything since she never managed to overcome its success

    All of those are worth reading, as I’m sure are Kevin’s other recommendations but those I haven’t personally read so can’t speak to directly myself.

  19. Rhys says:

    I am reading this book at present but I had got bored by Page 131……so I thought I would check up on what you and your comment people had to say about the book. I was very pleased to read your review because you suggest that there is a development coming up so I shall carry on and see what happens !!

  20. Trevor says:

    Definitely let us know how it turns out for you Rhys! I wasn’t bored at any time during the book, so I’m curious to see if it builds for you.

    Best of luck!

  21. Rhys says:

    Well thanks to you I have continued reading the book and I have now finished it ……but I am confused, I did not see the developments coming at all and it does become a very different story …. about deception I think…..and I feel deceived myself…..(it is not what I wanted the story to be about at all)…..I’ll ponder on it a bit more I think……

  22. Scott says:

    Just finished “Old School” which I picked up from Half-Price books yesterday; bought & read (in one day!) in preparation for Tobias Wolff’s visit to my sons’ all-boys private school (the primary setting of the book) in Cleveland next month. I loved the book. Mr. Wolff is very compasssionate to his characters (and thus to the reader) with not always predicable, yet very believable, actions and mindsets taken by his protagonist. Looking forward to “Our Story Begins” which I picked up as well.

  23. Trevor says:

    I love that Tobias Wolff is visiting your sons’ private school, Scott! What a great mindset in which to read this particular book! If you remember, I’d love to hear a brief report on how they liked his visit :).

  24. David Williams says:

    I would suggest the collection THE NIGHT IN QUESTION, which contains a couple of my favorites: “Bullet in the Brain,” which is quickly suspenseful and compact and funny, and is one of the best evocations I’ve ever read of what it is like as a youngster to fall in love with the literary appeal of language. In the same collection is a small, evocative story called “Powder,” which seems very autobigraphical, about Wolff as probably a teenager on a skiing trip with his charming and reckless father (about whom Tobias Wolff’s brother Geoffrey wrote a memoir called THE DUKE OF DECEPTION).

  25. Trevor says:

    Thanks for the recommendations, David. I still haven’t picked up more by Tobias Wolff since this one, but that’s more because of all the other books in line, and he’s definitely still on my list of authors to be explored in much much more depth.

Leave a Reply