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[155] Old School – Tobias Wolff

“By now I’d been absorbed so far into my performance that nothing else came naturally. But I never quite forgot that I was performing. In the first couple of years there’d been some spirit of play in creating the part, refining it, watching it pass. There’d been pleasure in implying a personal history through purely dramatic effects of manner and speech without ever committing an expository lie, and pleasure in doubleness itself: there was more to me than people knew!” [109]

Set in a New England prep school in 1960, the unnamed narrator, like many of his school-mates, aspires to be a writer. He is an outsider who learns to mimic the negligent but somewhat conceited manner of his elite, privileged comrades in this class-conscious, prejudiced, and ideal-driven setting. There is a tradition at the school by which one boy is granted a private audience with each visiting writer. The students will contend for the honor by submitting a piece of their own work pertaining to the author’s genre. While some teachers (called masters) praise the merit of its encouraging the boys to write, others fear the competition will only sanction the “idea of writing as warfare.”

Announcement of Robert Frost’s visit, the first of three writers, sweeps the whole student body and sets the boys scrambling to compose poems. On the heels of the poet comes Ayn Rand (the section on her is the funniest, and most venal one), whose disregard of mundane afflictions and daily struggles that beset even the most privileged of families leads our narrator to believe that, by following the example of Howard Roark from The Fountainhead, the greatest work ever to emerge will spontaneously create itself. But soon it dawns on him that he has disregarded his “unheroic,” but real, worlds. Struggling for identity within the world around him, the six-former (college-bound) compulsively hides his Jewish identity and laments his not living to the potential as a writer.

“And I no doubt blamed her even more because I had disregarded it myself—because for years now I had hidden my family in calculated silences and vague hints and dodges, suggesting another family in its place.” [93]

But he must learn to tell the truth first. The untruth of his position has given him an obscure, chronic sense of embarrassment, which evolves into a disgrace, a perpetration that incurs irremediable consequence. The hype and euphoria for Earnest Hemingway’s imminent visit also unveils deceptions that have been taken for granted around the school. A moral inquiry that is reminiscent of the works of Coetzee and Roth, and evocative of the academic setting in A Separate Peace (John Knowles) and The Small Room (May Sarton), Old School is essentially about lies, about what desire to impress will do to a person, even a person of integrity. It shows how a yearning to be part of the great world is all the making of vanity. The book also gives a glimpse of a writer’s identity—the inner working of a writer’s mind.

6 Responses

  1. Matt, I recently came across Tobias Wolffe in the The New Yorker. I read his short story:


    I think I am going to explore more works by him.

    Thanks for posting this.

  2. Matt, I live in India. Sunday has already dawned few hours back.


  3. I love this book! I read it a couple of years ago and really loved it, but I had forgotten some of the things that you pointed out in your review. I need to revisit this one soon.

  4. gautami:
    How am I going to catch up with your short-story reading? 🙂 I’ll search for more of Wolff’s works too. I think Old School is his only novel.

  5. Jessica:
    I like his writing style—so crisp and yet classy, elegant, and funny! I’ll certainly read more of his. I just saw that he will be in SF for a reading. 🙂

  6. Sounds like a very intelligent book, and funny of course! I’ll have to pick it up.

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