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Write From the Heart

Tobias Wolff's Old School

Tobias Wolff's new novel Old School brings us back to a time for which our nostalgia has already been canonized: 1960, the year of President Kennedy's election, complete with hawk-eyed matrons measuring the distance between slow-dancing teenagers. The setting is a New England boys' prep school, the kind that has hosted many a coming-of-age story, a time and a place rife with potential clichés.

But Old School is both fresh and timeless, thanks to Wolff's ability to create characters and conflicts that speak to deeper human truths. The narrator, a scholarship student in his final year at the school, has learned to conceal his working-class origins and his Jewishness in order to fit in with his peers. From his outsider's vantage, he has begun to notice that the school itself is a particular land of make-believe. "It was a good dream, and we tried to live it out, even while knowing we were actors in a play, and that outside the theater was a world we'd have to reckon with when the curtain closed and the doors were flung open... Class was a fact."

The common stage upon which the boys tread is a worshipful love of literature and their mutual dream of becoming writers. Three of the most venerable writers of the time, Robert Frost, Ayn Rand and Ernest Hemingway, visit the school that year, and the boys compete for chances to meet them. "I wanted to receive the laying on of hands that had written living stories and poems," says the narrator. "I wanted to be anointed."

Wolff's representation of the three writers is impressively detailed and subtle, from Robert Frost's feigned difficulties with a microphone to the run in Ayn Rand's stockings. Wolff takes no small risk in speaking and gesturing for these pillars of literature, and the stakes are increased by the reverence for writing that permeates the book. The reader senses a doubleness in the narration: just as the boys in the story want to honor their heroes with writing, so it seems Wolff wants to honor them with true, living portraits.

In his desire to be part of the preppy fold, the narrator lives a fine line between noble pretending and ignoble deception. Even in his love of literature there is an element of posturing that is both innocent and insidious. He fears being cast out if he shows the school who he really is through his writing, and so his writing, less than honest, suffers. Ironically, the moment he attempts to write honestly, he commits another kind of deception (one that would take too much sting from the plot if revealed here) that derails him completely.

He emerges to tell the tale, many years later as a successful writer. This adds intimacy to the narrative, because the reader can't help but wonder if the narrator is Wolff himself, explaining how his career developed. (For more on the autobiographical nature of Old School, see our interview with Wolff.) Old School isn't just a writer's thinly-veiled musings on the nature of writing. The novel is a much more universal story about learning to negotiate honestly with oneself and with the world.

Old School has been called Wolff's first novel, but the chapters almost read like short stories. Indeed, the first three were published separately in The New Yorker earlier this year, and another was excerpted in Narrative. Short plots build and resolve in each section, encouraging the reader to pause and take stock before moving on. For example, at the end of the second chapter, the narrator chooses not to submit to a contest the poem he thinks will reveal too much of himself. His choice tells us so much about the narrator's struggle toward honesty that for the moment it doesn't matter whether he ultimately enters the contest, much less wins or loses. As in a great short story, the not knowing would be enough to captivate us. But there's a lot of novel left to go, and we're blessed, just as the narrator is blessed from that point onward, to learn a lot more.

Old School
by Tobias Wolff
Knopf; ISBN: 0375401466
Hardcover: 208 pages (November 2003)

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