When I started to read Tobias Wolff, I made it my goal to read everything available by this very neglected American author. Reading everything essentially meant two memoirs (This Boy’s Life, In Pharaoh’s Army), two novels (The Barracks Thief, Old School), and four collections of short stories (In the Garden of the North American Martyrs, Back in the World, The Night in Question, Our Story Begins). I’ve finished the memoirs and novels, and I’d rank all of them highly (though This Boy’s Life and Old School were far above the other two). I haven’t been sitting around since finishing those, either; I’ve gotten a good start on the four collections of short stories, particularly since his last collection, Our Story Begins (2008), as well as offering ten new stories, pulls together several of the short stories from the earlier three volumes. There’s still quite a bit to be read, though, because this collection leaves out more than it’s put in, including the majority of the first two collections.
Though Wolff’s novels and memoirs have been well received award-winners, many still consider him a short story writer. There is good reason for this: his short stories are masterpieces of the genre. Wolff has control over what he’s doing, and his first sentence immediately gets us in the narrative; he knows his characters well and knows how to present them with economical detail so we feel we know much more about them than what is actually revealed; along those same lines, he writes prose so simple, clear, and concise that in just a few pages he’s able to give his readers a complete and enriching experience. We barely realize we’ve been reading at all.
Here is a good example from his story “Next Door”; Wolff jumps right in to the story, which, though it begins with quite a bit of action, is a very reflective first-person introspection.
I wake up afraid. My wife is sitting on the edge of my bed, shaking me. “They’re at it again,” she says.
I go to the window. All their lights are on, upstairs and down, as if they have money to burn. He yells, she screams something back, the dog barks. There is a short silence, then the baby cries, poor thing.
“Better not stand there,” says my wife. “They might see you.”
I say, “I’m going to call the police,” knowing she won’t let me.
“Don’t,” she says.
She’s afraid they’ll poison our cat if we complain.
Next door the man is still yelling, but I can’t make out what he’s saying over the dog and the baby. The woman laughs, not really meaning it — “Ha! Ha! Ha!” — and suddenly gives a sharp little cry. Everything goes quiet.
As I said above, this story becomes much more about the person telling it than these lines suggest. And the whole story is only a few pages long. Wolff can quickly pull a reader in, give that reader full characters, scenes, and emotions, and deliver a pensive and satisfying ending.
Though many of Wolff’s stories deal with soldiers or with troubled youth, he is generally varied in presentation. I spread this collection out over months, and I never felt like I was reading the same story over and over again. I doubt it would have been much different had I read them all together in one sitting, so varied are they. In fact, the only thing that was familiar each time I sat down to read one was the comfort I’d feel immediately upon digesting the first few lines. One story is a stretched-time account of a bullet going through the brain; it is aptly called “Bullet Through the Brain.” There’s also a very strange story called “Mortals” about a journalist who has little to wake up for each morning.
There was more to it than that. Since I was still on the bottom rung in metro, I wrote a lot of obituaries. Some days they gave me a choice between that and marriage bulletins, but most of the time obits were all I did, one after another, morning to night. After four months of this duty I was full of the consciousness of death. It soured me. It puffed me up with morbid snobbery, the feeling that I knew a secret nobody else had even begun to suspect. It made me wearily philosophical about the value of faith and passion and hard work, at a time when my life required all of these. It got me down.
Things get worse for the narrator when the subject of one of his obituaries comes to the office to visit: evidently, the subject is not actually dead.
Wolff’s stories, though written in a crystal clear prose with a narrative stream that sweeps you up and doesn’t let you go, are not actually “simple.” There are many layers and metaphors, so they work well for second and third readings. On a first read, I didn’t pay much attention to the sentence where the narrator lists his disillusionment of “faith and passoin and hard work” when that is exactly what he needed. Also, I didn’t catch the underlying imagery of closing line of “Mortals” my first time through it, but it’s clearly meaningful in the context of life and death, though the narrator is not dying at that moment:
I slipped him a quarter, hoping he’d let me pass.
As for the ten new stories featured in this collection, I feel I could pick out any one and we could have a long discussion about it. But I’ll choose one, “Nightingale,” and stick to my theme of showing the beginning, just to show how well Wolff expeditiously lays out most elements of a multi-layered story. Here are the first few lines:
Dr. Booth took several wrong turns during the drive upstate. It vexed him to get lost like this in front of his son, especially since the fault lay with the lousy map the Academy had sent him, but Owen was in one of his trances and didn’t seem to notice.
The strained father/son relationship is clearly established here; at least we feel the disconnect. We’ll see in a bit that it’s worse than that. Later the tension is built as we learn that Dr. Booth is taking Owen to the Academy as a kind of cure (or punishment) for being so distant and, as he feels, so lazy:
Dr. Booth could well understand why Owen didn’t want to go to the Academy. He was comfortable at home. He had his foolish dog, his lazy friends, the big house with all its sunny corners for reading, or for staring at nothing and making funny noises, or whatever he did all day. When Dr. Booth went into the kitchen, there was Owen. In the living room, Owen again. The front yard, Owen; the backyard, the basement, the hammock — Owen!
Of course, the thought of going to the Academy combined with the knowledge that it is meant to be a remedy, only makes Owen more despondent and more unintelligible to Dr. Booth. But back to the first lines in that first paragraph where Wolff is also laying out an important theme in the story when he describes the wrong turns and the faulty map. These wrong turns and faulty maps tie into fatherhood nicely, but never explicitly. And that first paragraph continues, only getting more complex:
His eyes were fixed on the far distance and his lips formed whispery sounds in a cadence that suggested poetry or music. Dr. Booth knew better than to try and make sense of it, but he couldn’t stop himself. He thought he recognized one word — nightingale — and that awoke a memory of three children, himself and his older sisters, sitting in a garden at dusk while somewhere above them a bird sang. It was, he knew, a trick memory, a mirage; there had been no such garden and no such evening. Still, the thought of his sisters, one drowned in a boating accident courtesy of her dimwit husband, the other far away and silent for years, made him even gloomier than he already was.
The story suddenly opens up in a strange way when we get this “trick memory.” Figuring out how it all fits together, digging into this story to understand the characters’ motivations (to say nothing of witnessing the horrors at the Academy), is a great treat — and it is, again, a very short story.
For those interested in getting to know Wolff, I am certain that if you start with these stories you, like me, won’t stop until you’ve read everything he’s written. Our Story Begins is a treasure.
I had wanted to wait to read Wolff’s In Pharaoh’s Army (1994), a finalist for the National Book Award in nonfiction in 1994. I wanted to wait because besides his short stories, most of which I’ve now read, this was it until Wolff’s next novel is published. But I couldn’t, because every other book I started was some kind of torture, for sitting right there on the table was another unread Wolff book. Finally realizing that I might not fully enjoy reading until I got this one out of the way, I caved. It was highly satisfying, and, I’m happy to say, I’ve enjoyed the books I’ve read since I finished it.
This Boy’s Life ends when Wolff is still a troubled fifteen year old, having just found out, against all probability, that he was accepted at one of the most prestigious private schools in America. I guess for now we have to take Old School, Wolff’s only novel proper still published, as an account of what that part of his life could have been like, because In Pharaoh’s Army picks up after Wolff has been expelled and is searching for the next step in life.
In a way, In Pharaoh’s Army is a sampling of what Wolff does best, memoir and short story. While there is a general narrative arch, the book is divided into thirteen discrete stories, each able to stand alone though best read as part of the larger structure. The first of these stories is called “Thanksgiving Special.” Here we meet Wolff, already in Vietnam:
Some peasants were blocking the road up ahead. I honked the horn but they chose not to hear. They were standing around under their pointed hats, watching a man and a woman yell at each other. When I got closer I saw two bicycles tangled up, a busted wicker basket, and vegetables all over the road. It looked like an accident.
When I read these first lines, I paused briefly at that last sentence. This is clearly an accident; what does “looked like” mean. I was further taken by surprise when Wolff describes the sound of the crunching metal as he runs his vehicle over the bicycles. To me this was adding insult to injury. And it was all done so matter-of-factly.
I didn’t say anything . What could I say? I hadn’t done it for fun. Seven months back, at the beginning of my tour, when I was still calling them people instead of peasants, I wouldn’t have run over their bikes. I would have slowed down or even stopped until they decided to move their argument to the side of the road, if it was a real argument and not a setup. But I didn’t stop anymore. Neither did Sergeant Benet. Nobody did, as these peasants — these people — should have known.
The first story showcases Wolff’s control over his material. He always seems to know where to lead readers so that the story reveals fresh and sometimes shocking observations. This could be just me. His tone and style are unassuming, and I for one am usually so engaged in what is going on on the page at that moment that I don’t think too much about where we’re going — consequently, I’m frequently pleasantly surprised.
Rather than try to summarize the thirteen segments here, let me describe their arch. We a few stories from Woolf’s training, a few from the year he spent in Washington D.C. studying Vietnamese to become an officer, several from the his tour, and a few after he returned home.
More appropriate for this review would be, I think, to show one of the most interesting threads that ties the stories together. When Wolff enlisted, he did so for a variety of muddled motives. For one, he didn’t have a high school diploma; for another, he felt the need to surpass his father, to be the honorable man his father was not (and, to my delight, we get to know his father a bit in this book, whereas he was just a ghostly presence in This Boy’s Life); and for another, he had a strong desire to be a writer, and his favorite authors, particularly Hemingway, witnessed war — Vietnam would offer him wide experiences and give him the chance to invent himself anew, yet again:
I wanted to be a writer myself, had described myself as one to anybody who would listen since I was sixteen. It was laughable for a boy my age to call himself a writer on the evidence of two stories in a school lit mag, but improbable as this self-conception was, it nevertheless changed my way of looking at the world. The life around me began at last to take on form, to signify. No longer a powerless confusion of desires, I was now a protagonist, the hero of a novel to which I endlessly added from the stories I dreamed and saw everywhere.
One of the threads in these stories is the problem of writing about experience, particularly about this kind of experience. And particularly about how to write about one’s self in such experiences. But Wolff deals with himself rather unsympathetically, though not coldly.
It seems that Wolff enlisted with faith in the war effort. Even if his primary motive wasn’t to help the cause, he at least believed the cause was right. Perhaps, “believed” is the wrong word — he “trusted” the cause was right. But as the muddle of war took over, as he saw himself running over bicycles in the street, and felt the grief as one friend after another “died a man at a time, at a pace almost casual,” we see him evolve.
The Quiet Americanaffected me disagreeably. I liked to think that good intentions had value. In this book good intentions accomplished nothing but harm. Cynicism and accommodation appeared, by comparison, almost virtuous. I didn’t like that idea. It seemed decadent, like the opium-addicted narrator and the weary atmosphere of the novel. What really bothered me was Greene’s portrayal of Pyle, the earnest, blundering American. I did not fail to hear certain tones of my own voice in his, and this was irritating, even insulting. Yet I read the book again, and again.
(Incidentally, The Quiet American is one of my favorites.)
Not are Wolff’s old ideas stripped, but nothing replaces them except an unpleasant sense that it is all arbitrary. He describes his close calls; the most haunting is one that isn’t really “close” in the conventional sense. Rather, it is close because, when preparing for a specific assignment, the commanding officer put his hand on Wolff’s friend of the same rank rather than on Wolff. The friend was killed. Wolff knows that had he been the one standing where his friend was, it would have been him. Now, this is not an original idea. Because of this it’s not quite as compelling as This Boy’s Life, but as I expected it was a true pleasure to read. Wolff the writer has made Wolff the character such an interesting life to follow.
To continue on my project to read Tobias Wolff I chose his “other” ”novel,” The Barracks Thief (1984; PEN/Faulkner Award). I put “other” in quotation marks because due to Wolff’s own repudiation of his first novel Ugly Rumors, this and Old School are considered the only two novels he’s written. I put “novel” in quotation marks because this is really a novella, in some ways much more closely related to his short stories than to Old School.
The Barracks Thief begins by introducing Guy Bishop, basically a failure of a man (when Boeing was hiring anyone, he they still fired him), who will eventually cave in from the weight of an affair and leave his wife and two sons. But in the first lines of the book, Wolff presents Guy from a contrasting perspective, in a moment of deep intimacy:
When his boys were young, Guy Bishop formed the habit of stopping in their room each night on his way to bed. He would look down at them where they slept, and then he would sit in the rocking chair and listen to them breathe. He was a man who had always gone from job to job, and, even since his marriage, woman to woman. But when he sat in the dark between his two sleeping sons he felt no wish to move.
When he can no longer stay, he seems to most deeply regret the effect his leaving would have on his family, particularly on his wife — she’ll be so lonely without him, it will be very hard for her raising these two boys on her own, etc.
Philip did learn to get along without his father, mainly by despising him. His mother held up, too, better than Guy Bishop had expected. She caved in every couple of weeks or so, but most of the time she was cheerful in a determined way. Only Keith lost heart. He could not stop grieving. He cried easily, sometimes for no apparent reason. The two boys had been close; now, even in the act of comforting Keith, Philip looked at him from a distance. There was only a year and a half between them but it began to seem like five or six. One night, coming in from a party, he shook Keith awake with the idea of having a good talk, but after Keith woke up Philip went on shaking him and didn’t say a word. One of the cats had been sleeping with Keith. She arched her back, stared wide-eyed at Philip, and jumped to the floor.
“You’ve got to do your part,” Philip said.
Keith just looked at him.
“Damn you,” Philip said. He pushed Keith back against the pillow. “Cry,” he said. “Go ahead, cry.” He really did hope that Keith would cry, because he wanted to hold him. But Keith shook his head. He turned his face to the wall. After that Keith kept his feelings to himself.
There is more emotion and narrative packed into the first few pages of The Barracks Thief than in many novels of any size. The fracture in the family is swift, but we feel its depth in such moments when we see Philip just keep shaking Keith. The effects of this hard childhood will reverberate through the book even though the book takes place primarily in a barracks where Philip is preparing for a tour in Vietnam. Though we leave Guy Bishop, the first character we met, in a moment of intimacy, in the first sentence of the book, there is no sudden lurch in the narrative as it moves to other subjects; it flows smoothly from one moment to the next, the first pages echoing in the background.
After briefly watching Phillip and Keith grow older, we move to the barracks for the remainder of the novel, and get a shift in perspective as Phillip becomes our narrator. As the new guy at the barracks Philip hesitates to be seen too much with the two other new guys, Lewis and Hubbard. If they group together, they’ll forever be “the new guys.” However, on the Fourth of July the three of them get placed on guard duty together. This is not the typical assignment, though. They drive several miles from the barracks to an ammunition dump. They are to shoot to kill anyone who gets too close. When their commanding officer leaves, we get to see them settle in and start to get familiar with each other. Sometime during the night, a truck approaches, and a man gets out to speak with them:
“Okay, mister,” Hubbard said, “we’re all here.”
“Bet you’d rather be someplace else, too.” He smiled at us. “Terrible way to spend the holiday.”
None of us said anything.
The man stopped smiling. “We have a fire,” he said. He pointed to the east, at a black cloud above the trees. “It’s an annual event,” the man said. “A couple of kids blew up a pipe full of matches. Almost took their hands off.” He turned his head and barked twice. He might have been laughing or he might have been coughing.
“So what?” Lewis said.
The man looked at him, then at me. I noticed for the first time that his eyes were blinking steadily. “This isn’t the best place to be,” he said.
Thus begins a very tense interchange between the man, apparently trying to save their life from the fire, and the three new soldiers, trying to act their roles with their guns. They surprise themselves, and are exhilarated by, their capacity for violence now that it is expected of them. Naturally, after such a transformative event, the three new boys become much closer.
The book again, after this additional intensely emotional episode, shifts gears. Someone in the barracks begins stealing money from his fellows. Its very disturbing that an individual within such a tight group could steal from those with him in these terrible circumstances. It has a bad effect on everyone, but a particularly troubling effect on the new recruits.
Because the stealing was something new, and I was new, I felt accused by it. No one said anything, but I felt in my heart that I was suspected. It made me furious. For the first time in my life I was spoiling for a fight, just waiting for someone to say something so I could swing at him and prove my innocence. I noticed that Lewis carried himself the same way — swaggering and glaring at everyone all the time. He looked ridiculous, but I thought I understood. We were all breathing poison in and out. It was a bad time.
In its ability to shift from one momentous scene to the next without throwing the reader, The Barracks Thief reminded me of Old School. I love that Wolff lets his works go where they will. Despite this appearing loose, though, it is actually a very tightly structured novel. In it we get a variety of situations dealing with a variety of characters, including a prostitute I haven’t even introduced here.
Groups come together and break down, and in breaking down we see that they were never really on the same page at all. But those two forces — the ones that pull people together and the ones that drive people apart — are wonderfully rendered in this fascinating novella.
Some five years ago, my wife, on a whim, bought This Boy’s Life (1989; PEN/Faulkner winner). I thought it looked interesting (and I’d seen previews for and clips from the film version with Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro), but I never bothered to pick it up. My wife then completely forgot that she was the one who bought it with the intention of reading it. Last year I finally entered the work of Tobias Wolff with his exceptional novel Old School. I was surprised at how good that novel was because Wolff (if he is known — and more people should read him) is better known for his short stories and this memoir. So I finally pulled This Boy’s Life off the shelf. I will make sure my wife reads it soon because this is, again, exceptional.
After reading Old School and knowing that it is in part inspired by Wolff’s own adolescence at an exclusive private boys’ school (The Hill), I was taken completely off-guard when he presents himself as a young delinquent child of a poor single-mother. How does this boy who rolls cars down hills, smashing them into other cars, who doesn’t do his homework and cheats on his tests, whose wealth is gained by robbing his paper route patrons, and whose wealth is lost in a carnival game binge become a Hill School boy who grows up to be the award-winning author of such disciplined prose?
But even without that mystifying angle – which is certainly a real angle to the story (indeed, it is the angle that helps this memoir transcendant) – the young Wolff’s life is heartbreaking and captivating. The book begins on the road. Wolff, who at this point in his life would prefer to be called “Jack” instead of “Toby” (because he knew a girl named Toby), and his mother Caroline are fleeing an abusive relationship in Florida. “Jack’s” father and mother are divorced — he lives, they think quite comfortably, in Connecticut with the older son (Geoffrey Wolff — an acclaimed writer himself, and who wrote his own memoir about living with the father: The Duke of Deception). The two sides of the split family have little contact. After Florida, Caroline hopes to settle in Utah where she wants to take advantage of the uranium mining opportunities in the 1950s. When they see that Moab is over-populated by others with the same goal, they continue on to Salt Lake City. The fact that no one has found any uranium in Salt Lake City just means there’ll be more for them when it is found. When the boyfriend they left behind in Florida finds them, but not before he settles in with them again, mother and son eventually flee again, this time to maybe Phoenix . . . or Seattle — Seattle it is.
In this first part of the story Wolff gives a penetrating portrait of his relationship to his damaged mother. She loves him tremendously and with no small amount of guilt, though she recognizes that it is an asset to him if he is tough. He tentatively takes advantage of her love and guilt from time to time (the book opens just before a truck crashes down a canyon; seeing his mother’s grief and worry that he witnessed such a tragedy, Jack gets her to buy him some souvenirs, which he knows she cannot afford). Caroline actually grew up quite wealthy, and she misses that lifestyle somewhat. But all is lost now. Worse, she was emotionally beaten down by her own father, and we see how much she does not want to do the same to her young son. He has her trust and her loose discipline. Though he sees himself as becoming a better person, at this time in his life he can hardly stop himself from exploiting her softness. Though the book doesn’t explore this too much, there might even be a punitive motive to how Wolff acts out; he’s aware of what he doesn’t have.
To many who freely give their opinion, Jack needs a father. Caroline, obviously, has bad luck with men, and she doesn’t really want to get into a relationship again. But for her son, she does her best. Here is a poignant scene of intimacy between mother and son after a failed date with a charming man who has promised to buy Jack a Raleigh bicycle:
I slept badly that night. I always did when my mother went out, which wasn’t often these days. She came back late. I listened to her walk up the stairs and down the hall to our room. The door opened and closed. She stood just inside for a moment, then crossed the room and sat down on her bed. She was crying softly. “Mom?” I said. When she didn’t answer I got up and went over to her. “What’s wrong, Mom?” She looked at me, tried to say something, shook her head. I sat beside her and put my arms around her. She was gasping as if someone had held her underwater.
I rocked her and murmured to her. I was practiced at this and happy doing it, not because she was unhappy but because she needed me, and to be needed made me feel capable. Soothing her soothed me.
She exhausted herself, and I helped her into bed. She became giddy then, laughing and making fun of herself, but she didn’t let go of my hand until she fell asleep.
In the morning we were shy with each other. I somehow managed not to ask her my question. That night I continued to master myself, but my self-mastery seemed like an act; I knew I was too weak to keep it up.
My mother was reading.
“Mom?” I said.
She looked up.
“What about the Raleigh?”
She went back to her book without answering. I did not ask again.
Among her several suitors after they arrive in Seattle is the very persistent Dwight. Each weekend, he drives from his home in Chinook, a few hours away, to see her. Tobias’s actions in school and in the street are increasingly cause for alarm. Worse are the things she doesn’t know about; for example, when home alone he points a loaded rifle at pedestrians outside. Dwight sees the mother’s concern as leverage to get her to marry him:
Dwight drove down that weekend. They spent a lot of time together, and finally my mother told me that Dwight was urging a proposal which she felt bound to consider. He proposed that after Christmas I move up to Chinook and live with him and go to school there. If things worked out, if I made a real effort and got along with him and his kids, she would quit her job and accept his offer of marriage.
She did not try to make any of this sound like great news. Instead she spoke as if she saw in this plan a duty which she would be selfish not to acknowledge. But first she wanted my approval. I thought I had no choice, so I gave it.
It’s terrible to see what is happening here. Nevertheless, the young Tobias moves out of his mother’s house to live with a new family in Chinook. Not wanting to hurt his mother, and still unaware that there is any choice, he never tells her just how horrible a person Dwight is.
My mother told me she could still change her mind. She could keep her job and find another place to live. I understood, didn’t I, that it wasn’t too late? / I said I did, but I didn’t. I had come to feel that all of this was fated, that I was bound to accept as my home a place I didn’t not feel at home in, and to take as my father a man who was offended by my existence and would never stop questioning my right to it. I did not believe my mother when she told me it wasn’t too late. I knew she meant what she said, but it seemed to me that she was deceiving herself. Things had gone too far. And somehow it was her telling me it wasn’t too late that made me believe, past all doubt, that it was. Those words still sound to me less like a hope than an epitaph, the last lie we tell before hurling ourselves over the brink.
Needless to say, the marriage takes place. But this is still the beginning of the book. And, without giving much away, as looming a character as Dwight is, his relationship with Tobias is still secondary. This is a story about growing up into an identity you’ve always imagined as yours but that seems completely unlikely. It is highlighted with sometimes fun and sometimes terrible images and perspectives of youth. I can’t recommend it enough.
* This book has started me on two mini-projects. One is to read everything I can find written by Tobias Wolff. I’ve already got his other novel The Barracks Thief, his other memoir In Pharaoh’s Army, and many of his short stories in the collection Our Story Begins. I am so delighted by his writing that I think I’ll get through all of this in no time.
Maybe to pace myself in the Wolff project, I set myself up on another project: to read some other literary memoirs. By literary memoir, I mean that it has to be more than recollections — I want to feel the same as I do when I read a great novel. I’ve only dabbled in the genre (love Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood, don’t love Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes). For this project, I’ve slated Philip Roth’s Patrimony, Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn (I know, is it really a memoir? close enough for my purposes), Primo Levi’s Survival at Auschwitz, Jacques Roubaud’s The Great Fire of London, Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D.H. Lawrence, and, killing two birds with one stone, Tobias Wolff’s In Pharaoh’s Army. This list may grow. I already feel I should go buy Geoffrey Wolff’s The Duke of Deception. I’m not sure how interspersed these will be among other reading projects, but I’m looking forward to getting through these titles, most of which have been sitting on the bookshelf far too long. If you can think of some other literary memoirs, please feel free to list them below.
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.