Old School Author:Tobias Wolff Tobias Wolff's Old School is at once a celebration of literature and delicate hymn to a lost innocence of American life and art. Set in a New England prep school in the early 1960s, the novel imagines a final, pastoral moment before the explosion of the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and the suicide... more » of Ernest Hemingway. The unnamed narrator is one of several boys whose life revolves around the school's English teachers, those polymaths who seemed to know "exactly what was most worth knowing."
For the boys, literature is the center of life, and their obsession culminates in a series of literary competitions during their final year. The prize in each is a private audience with a visiting writer who serves as judge for the entries. At first, the narrator is entirely taken with the battle. As he fails in his effort to catch Robert Frost's attention and then is unable -- due to illness -- to even compete for his moment with Ayn Rand, he devotes his energies to a masterpiece for his hero, Hemingway.
But, confronting the blank page, the narrator discovers his cowardice, his duplicity. He has withheld himself, he realizes, even from his roommate. He has used his fiction to create a patrician gentility, a mask for his middle class home and his Jewish ancestry. Through the competition for Hemingway, fittingly, all of his illusions about literature dissolve.
Old School is a small, neatly made book, spare and clear in its prose. Each chapter is self-contained and free of anything extraneous to the essentials of plot, mood, and character. Near the end of the novel, the narrator, now a respected writer, imagines that he might one day write about his school days. But he is daunted. "Memory," he says, "is a dream to begin with, and what I had was a dream of memory, not to be put to the test." Old School enters this interplay between dreams and the adult interrogation of memory. Risking sentimentality, Wolff confronts a golden age that never was. From the confrontation, he distills a powerful novel of failed expectations and, ultimately, redemptive self-awareness.« less
I liked this book. It seemed to me to be a series of short stories about a boy growing into a man. The boy is the same individual throughout the chapters with very different experiences. He tells all the stories. When he uses another's story in a senior writing competition for Ernest Hemingway he wins but is expelled from school. The master who drives him to the train station tries to tell him that he will recover from this incident but doesn't quite know how to tell him so. Life brings other experiences and the young man becomes the writer he wanted to be but finds it difficult to reconcile this experience in light of his success. The last story about the former dean returning after resigning is my favorite tale. It seems disconnected to the rest of the book but I loved it. The connection is that the former master who drove him to the train station is telling him the former dean's story. This read helps one understand the pressures of writing competition in a boys school. In addition, the book is a maturing of one individual writer. There is much about the idolizing of famous writers and the mimicking of their work. As I read it I thought about a story I wrote in college about a green plaid dress. My mother had a habit of dressing my sister and I alike and I hated that dress because of it. When the assignment came I decided to convince the teacher that I loved the dress. It worked. I couldn't help wondering how much of this book is turned about in the same way.