Tobias Wolff's 'Old School': a vivid reality

November 23, 2003|By Ken Tucker | Ken Tucker,Special to the Sun

Old School, by Tobias Wolff. Knopf. 198 pages. $22.

Tobias Wolff is the author of numerous collections of exemplary short stories as well as the celebrated memoir This Boy's Life. Wolff is a master of reverie, avoiding sentimentality in favor of clarity and the sorts of truths that can sting, particularly in the matter of fathers and sons. Old School is his first novel, and it's written in the form of a memoir -- that of an aging scholar looking back over his life -- but you never get the sense that Wolff is trading on the residual affection any reader might hold for This Boy's Life. Old School is utterly new, even as it tells a story that draws you in with the warm comfort of its narrator's voice.

Our unnamed narrator -- "a scholarship boy" -- enters an elite New England prep school for boys in the 1960s. He is a complex mixture of sass and self-doubt, a young fellow eager to steep himself in literature of all sorts. His school has a tradition: Periodically, a celebrated writer is invited to visit, give a talk, and hold a private audience with one boy who has written an essay chosen by the famous author.

Wolff conveys the fierceness of the competition, the boys' jockeying for favor among their most admired and feared teachers, and does an astonishing job of introducing such real-life writers as Robert Frost and Ayn Rand into Old School.

Frost -- more churlish and rascally than the boys expect from the nationally beloved white-haired monument who wrote Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening -- passes over the diligent work of our youthful protagonist in favor of a rival's piece that pokes a bit of fun at Frost. The narrator is appalled by such levity -- in the student and Frost. Old School is carefully named; it depicts an era when a kid could say "I admired Hemingway above all other writers" with a fervency that today would normally be reserved for fealty to, say, Eminem.

Wolff's section on Ayn Rand's visit is even better -- he permits himself both wickedness and vulnerability in his writing. Rand, "her wide red mouth fixed in a skeptical wince," preaches her secular gospel of radical individualism, exhorting the boys that they "must never be meek, the meek shall inherit nothing but a boot on the neck."

"I was discovering the force of my will," notes the narrator, dreamily, reading The Fountainhead three -- no, four! -- times. Old School proceeds as a dream of innocence and experience, but toward the end takes a twist that should not be spoiled. Wolff writes about plagiarism, lies both harmless and ruinous, and the intrusion of the sad realities of too many lives spent in the cocoon of academia. The narrator may come to the conclusion that "Memory is a dream to begin with, and what I had was a dream of memory," but Wolff has created a world whose reality is so vivid, it will break your heart.

Ken Tucker is critic-at-large for Entertainment Weekly, where he writes about television, movies, books and music, and a music critic for National Public Radio's Fresh Air. He was a critic for The Philadelphia Inquirer from 1982 to 1989.

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