Tobias Wolff

"Old School"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple NOV 11, 2003)

"The life that produces writing can't be written about. It is a life carried on without the knowledge even 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."

Old School by Tobia Wolff

In this homage to literature, the literary life, and the power of literature to influence a reader's life, Tobias Wolff focuses his attention on a small New England prep school in 1962, a school in which students live and breathe "the writing life." An unnamed speaker is the first-person narrator, a student whose background is a bit different from most of his wealthier, East Coast classmates. He is from Seattle, from a broken home, with a Jewish father with whom he lives but to whom he is not close, and a Roman Catholic mother who has remarried and lives elsewhere. He is not wealthy, but at school he has learned to "walk the walk and talk the talk" as if he were, simply not mentioning enough about his background to raise any questions.

Read excerptHis prep school, for which he has a full scholarship, focuses on liberal arts, with writing and literature consuming most of the attention of the speaker, his friends, and the faculty to whom we are introduced. The headmaster has studied with Robert Frost and has published his own book of poetry. The Dean is thought to have been a friend of Ernest Hemingway during World War I, and school tradition has it that he was the model for Jake's fishing buddy, Bill, in The Sun Also Rises. To the boys, the English Department is "a kind of chivalric order," where they practice the "ritual swordplay of their speech." The editorship of the school's literary magazine, Troubadour, is a prestigious position, and the best writers in the senior class, including the speaker, serve on its editorial board, evaluating and choosing the writing for the magazine.

For these students, the highlights of the school year are the three-times-a-year appearances of American literary luminaries and the opportunity for one boy to have a one-hour private audience with a particular writer, an honor for which the boys contend in hugely competitive writing contests. If a poet is to be the speaker, the boys compete by writing poems; if a writer of fiction, they write short stories, with the visiting writer selecting the winner from the submitted offerings. The speaker/narrator is desperate to win one of these contests. "My aspirations were mystical," he says. "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." If he can be a writer, he thinks, incidentally, he can also "escape the problems of blood and class."

As various writers appear at the school, the reader observes the growth of the boys, especially the speaker, as they are influenced by and react to the contest, to each other, to the visiting writer, and to the writer's speech. Robert Frost, a crusty, curmudgeonly New Englander, terrifies the winner of the contest because Frost has mistakenly assumed the winning poem to be a parody of his writing and seems a bit irked, and he puzzles the speaker by telling him to go to Kamchatka or Brazil if he wants to be a poet. Ayn Rand, whose The Fountainhead has totally absorbed the speaker for weeks, is so rude to some of her admirers that the speaker rejects her whole philosophy. "[Her] heroic life apparently left no time for children, or domestic cares, or the exertions of ordinary sympathy," all of which are a part of life, he thinks, especially for a writer. It is when everyone's idol, Ernest Hemingway, is coming to the campus and the contest is held to meet him that the novel reaches its peak and, in a very dramatic way, changes the speaker's life forever.

Wolff's novel is most remarkable for its point of view and for its conciseness. Very little time is spent describing the physical characteristics of the speaker, the school, or the other characters. We know that he admires John F. Kennedy because he is "roguish and literate," and possesses "an almost formal insouciance," and we suspect that the speaker would like to emulate him, though we never know what the speaker looks like or even his name. This is completely appropriate since the speaker, of course, knows his own name and appearance, and it is through his eyes that the entire novel is filtered. He is interested in poems and short stories and philosophy and writing and being part of the gang, all of which he talks about in detail, not in the observation of his surroundings. He remembers comments made by teachers and writers and other students who share his interests, and those are what is important to him-everything else is extraneous. Through the speaker's wonderfully nuanced recollections, the reader learns as much from what is not stated-what is understood and taken for granted-as s/he does from what is revealed overtly.

Though New England prep school life may not resonate with most readers, Wolff is able to use this confined setting to examine in detail the literary life and what it means, presenting a novel with messages of wider, more global significance as the speaker moves from the school to the crueler outside world. In later chapters the speaker shows us what he has learned from his school experiences and what has made a lasting difference in his life-as a writer. He elaborates on some of his school experiences, using them as the inspiration for later fiction, some of which he, as an older, mature writer, presents to the reader within this novel.

Old School is a novel which students of writing will treasure-for its revelations of what it means to be a writer, its insights into the thinking of a perceptive teenager who is both idealistic and pragmatic, its irony, and its remarkable narrative voice. The themes are beautifully realized, and not one word is wasted or rings false. Though Wolff says that "No true account can be given of how or why you become a writer," he comes as close here to illustrating that process as in any other novel I've ever read about the writing life.

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Read a chapter excerpt from Old School at MostlyFiction.com



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About the Author:

Tobias WolffTobias Wolff was born in 1945. He received a B.A. from Oxford University and an M.A. from Stanford University. He has also been the editor of Best American Short Stories, The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories, and A Doctor's Visit: The Short Stories of Anton Chekhov. His work appears regularly in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper's, and other magazines and literary journals. He has received the Rea Award for excellence in the short story, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and the PEN/Faulkner Award. Respected as much for his teaching skills as his writing skills, Wolff taught at Syracuse University for 17 years. He joined Stanford University in 1997 as a tenured professor of English. Wolff lives in Northern California.

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