Tobias Wolff’s groundbreaking memoir This Boy’s Life set the rules for the genre and is still considered a classic. Old School takes off from where his memoir left off. Even if Wolff’s latest is fiction, many aspects of the story read like pieces from his own life.
The unnamed narrator of the novel is a student at a New England prep school, there on a scholarship and keenly aware of the role of class and status within the boundaries of the school. “Class was a fact,” he says, describing the school, “Not just the clothes a boy wore, but how he wore them. How he spent his summers. The sports he knew how to play. His way of turning cold at the mention of money, or at the spectacle of ambition too nakedly revealed. You felt it as a depth of ease in certain boys, their innate, affable assurance that they would not have to struggle for a place in the world, that it had already been reserved for them.”
The boys are all “book-drunk,” for the most part, and eagerly anticipate the arrival of famous literary writers three times a year. The writing life is one that most of these boys aspire to, probably because it is the only way many of them know to create a classless society. It is no surprise, then, that the visiting authors are heroes and role models for many of the students. Tradition has it that every visiting author gets to have a private tête-à-tête with one boy selected from the student body. To be selected as the “winner”, the boys need to submit a piece of writing; the author then chooses the winning entry from the pile of submissions. So it is that Robert Frost visits the school, and later, the controversial Ayn Rand, whom the narrator worships at first, only to realize that she has no idea what actually went on in the lives of real people. By looking at her faults, the narrator also comes to an understanding of his own complicated life.
It is when the school announces that the great Hemingway will be the next author to visit that the competition to be the chosen one reaches fever pitch. Hemingway is the boys’ dream writer; everybody is in debt to Hemingway. In his eagerness to be the one forever blessed by Hemingway, the narrator commits a disreputable act. Wolff’s prose at this point is so painstakingly accurate one can feel the narrator’s pain and almost start to believe in the reasons for his deceit. Sure enough, this one act has serious lasting consequences for the narrator and, ironically, prepares him for the true turmoil of the writing world like no other experience could.
Tobias Wolff is a master of the short story form. In fact, many vignettes from this novel have already appeared in the New Yorker. The novel, too, boasts prose that is considered and taut. There is not one wasted word here. Above all, Wolff has fashioned a story that breaks out of its prep school setting. By shining a light on one student’s life, by considering the everyday complexities of class, Old School transcends its setting with its universal message.
Above all, the novel is a wonderful homage to a life spent with books and in mastering the writing craft. “The life that produces writing can’t be written about,” says the narrator at one point in Old School. That may be, but in recreating the narrator’s own early start in writing, Wolff has marvelously proven just the opposite. Wolff’s latest is tangible proof that indeed one could never “live without stories.” Especially a precise, beautifully wrought one such as Old School.