Old School, by Tobias Wolff

Purchased at Chapters.ca

Purchased at Chapters.ca

The time is November, 1960 and the setting a private boys’ school somewhere in the northeast United States. While the rest of the country is preoccupied with the presidential election pitting Nixon against Kennedy, the school is preoccupied with the impending visit of Robert Frost. The school has a tradition of three author visits a year and has the reputational clout to attract quality — we are told that Robert Penn Warren and Edmund Wilson have been previous visitors. While every student can attend the guest lecture, the real prize comes from the writing competition which precedes it; the winning student is given a one-hour audience with the visiting writer.

The institution in Tobias Wolff’s Old School is obviously not your down-market public school next door (the author himself was expelled from the Hill School near Philadelphia — that school is part of an organization that includes Choate, Andover, Exeter and Chaffee so he knows something about the elite prep schools). The unnamed narrator is a scholarship student but he is fully aware of the required state of avoiding reality that is essential to the school’s self-image:

It was understood that some of the boys might get a leg up from their famous names or great wealth, but if privilege gave them a place, the rest of us liked to think it was a perilous place. You could never advance in it, you could only try not to lose it by talking too much about the debutante parties you went to or the Jaguar you earned by turning sixteen. And meanwhile, absent other distinctions, you were steadily giving ground to a system of honors that valued nothing you hadn’t done for yourself.

While the school consciously denies those aspects of class and economics that are a vital part of its function (they are so powerful that they do not seem to need to be recognized), it does have a snobbery of its own: “Its pride in being a literary place — quite aside from the glamorous writers who visited three times a year”:

How did they command such deference — English teachers? Compared to the men who taught physics or biology, what did they really know of the world? It seemed to me, and not only to me, that they knew exactly what was most worth knowing. Unlike our math and science teachers, who modestly stuck to their subjects, they tended to be polymaths. Adept as they were at dissection, they would never leave a poem or a novel strewn about in pieces like some butchered frog reeking of formaldehyde. They’d stitch it back together with history and psychology, philosophy, religion, and even, on occasion, science. Without pandering to your presumed desire to identify with the hero of a story, they made you feel that what mattered to the writer had consequence for you, too.

In fact, much of Old School is a meditation on writing and what motivates a young man to become a writer. Wolff is best known as a memoirist and short story writer — he’s pretty much repudiated his first novel, Ugly Rumors (1975), so this book, first published in 2003, is his only full-length fictional work — and it is hard not to see that aspect of the book as autobiographical. The narrator reveres Hemmingway (“I had some magazine pictures of Ernest Hemmingway tacked above my desk. In one he was baring his choppers at the camera in a way that left no doubt of his capacity for rending and tearing, which seemed plainly connected to his strength as a writer.”) but there are many other role models whom the boys eagerly debate.

Wolff, in fact, cannot resist a wonderful digression, that gently mocks all this, while at the same time reminding readers again that America’s future upper class is being trained at this school. At the insistence of the chair of the board of trustees, who “rained money on the school” and thus cannot be ignored, whatever his follies, Frost is followed as visiting writer by none other than Ayn Rand (“she tore into our school motto — Give All — and urged everyone to ignore such drivel and live for themselves alone”). She also rebukes the chair of the board for describing her as a “conservative” in his introduction: “She said that she was a radical, not a conservative, and that people should attach meaning to the words they speak.” (Wolff must have had great fun watching Sarah Palin last fall, but now I too digress.)

The Rand pages, funny as they are, serve mainly as reminder of the school’s quiet denial of its real role. The plot begins to move more swiftly when Hemmingway himself is announced as the final visiting writer of the year — a tribute to Dean Makepeace to whom successive classes have paid homage for knowing him during the war and an incentive to the narrator to finally win the writing contest.

We already know that the narrator, like his school, is hiding a secret. His father is Jewish, something that he has only recently discovered and admitted to no one. He had this brought to mind at a dinner with his roommate’s father early in the year:

Mr. White was a widower and lived in Peru, where he owned a textile company. He had Bill invite me for dinner at the village inn, and seeing the two together produced a certain shock; both of them tall and fair and green-eyed, Mr. White an older version of his son in every respect save the Brooklyn in his voice and an almost eager warmth. He referred often to their family and it soon became obvious that they were Jewish. I had roomed with Bill for two years and he’d never given me the slightest hint. Though I had practiced some serious dissembling of my own, I’d never suspected it of Bill. I thought of him as honest, if aloof. Who was he, really? All that time together, and it turned out I didn’t know him any better than he knew me.

All secrets have their reasons and all secrets carry costs. Perhaps an exploration of those themes would be appealing to Hemmingway when it comes to the writing contest.

As you have probably guessed, nothing is quite what it seems to be in Old School. Difficult issues and facts that might cause concern are preferably just avoided. It is not so much that truth is not told or broken as that it is avoided through omission. Wolff hones this part of his work superbly as the novel draws to a close. The ending in particular takes the book to a whole new place, albeit one entirely consistent with the rest of the book.

I have said before that I am a sucker for “school” books and this one joins the front rank in that category (with John Knowles’ A Separate Peace and Richard Yates A Good School — for another view of this book and a discussion about great school novels check out Trevor’s review here). Or my own thoughts on two “school” books that feature female leads. And if you think you might prefer Wolff’s short stories, check out John Self’s review of Our Story Begins, his most recent collection.

In Old School, Wolff does go in a different direction than all of those books. His epigraph for this book, from Mark Strand’s “Elegy for My Father”, details it perfectly:

Why did you lie to me?
I always thought I told the truth.
Why did you lie to me?
Because the truth lies like nothing else and I love the truth.

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17 Responses to “Old School, by Tobias Wolff”

  1. Trevor Says:

    I’ve been anxious to see your thoughts on this one, Kevin. I loved it and was pretty sure you would too. By the way, I just got an offer to review a new “school” book, Hummingbirds by Joshua Gaylord. This one is about “relationships between the teachers and students at an all-girl prep school.” Gaylord himself teaches at a prep school on the Upper East Side here. I haven’t received it yet, but I thought you might be interested in it. I think I’m a bit skeptical going in, but lately that has produced better reading experiences — and from some of the reviews, the skepticism might be unfounded.

    Anyway, again, so happy to remember Old School, one of my highlights of the year. I keep meaning to pick up This Boy’s Life, but I must be unconsciously saving it.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    This is a wonderful book, that I fully recommend. I await your thoughts on the Gaylord — the problem with new school books for me is that I already have such an extensive list of favorites.

  3. Thomas Says:

    I tend to like school novels as well and I loved Old School. Based on this I thought I would like A Separate Peace, but I really didn’t care for it.

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I’m a little surprised you didn’t like A Separate Peace. Then again, one of the things about school novels is that the reader does need “a point of connect” early on in the book.

  5. Lee Monks Says:

    Without a doubt one of my favourite books, full stop. I’m a sucker for fictional (or otherwise) accounts of writers, and Frost and Rand are captured brilliantly here (accurately? Not sure). A sumptuous, near-as-dammit perfect novel.

  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    “Near-as-dammit perfect” is right, Lee. I too love the portrayals of Frost and Rand. At first, I was pretty much convinced they were Wolff’s idea of what the authors would be like — then I started wondering if maybe they had actually shown up at his school before he got expelled. I think I’ll stick with my first interpretation.

  7. john h Says:

    I read this when it first came out. I’m a big fan of Wolff’s but I didn’t like it anywhere near as much as “This Boy’s Story” and “In Pharoah’s Army.” Not that it was any less well written than those books. That’s one thing I will say about Wolff: His books are about as well executed as you can get. I guess my problem is that this book didn’t seem very ambitious to me. It just seemed he was working on a smaller canvas.

    I’m making it sound like I didn’t like the book but I did. Wolff is definitely one of the better practitioners of fiction that we have in the states. By the way, another school book I haven’t seen you mention is “The Secret History”. You’ve probably read it as it was a huge book when it came out. But if not, check it out. Gorgeous prose and a heck of a story.

  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    John: Yes, I have read The Secret History — actually thought about it when I was reading Fall (reviewed a couple weeks ago) because Tartt succeeded where McAdam failed. My favorite story about it comes from the NY Times — the book scroungers who collect discarded volumes from curbside garbage in Manhattan and then show up to sell them at the Strand bookstore are not allowed to bring in any paperback Secret History copies, because there are simply too many. The original hardback (with its palimpsest cover) is quite another matter.

    I haven’t read the other Wolff’s that you mention, so I can’t comment. I’d say my penchant for school novels definitely provided Old School with some bonus marks.

  9. john h Says:

    Based on what a well-read guy you are, I just assumed you’d read the two earlier Wolff books. “In Pharoah’s Army” in particular is great although the other is very fine as well.

    I’m currently reading “American Wife” by Curtis Sittenfeld. I wonder if you know about this book. It’s a fictionalized life of Laura Bush. I’m high on the list of Bush haters so it took me a while to get around to reading it and this despite the fact that I very much enjoyed Sittenfeld’s two previous books. The book carries an endorsement from Richard Russo. That along should have told me I was in for something good. I’ve been enjoying the hell out of this book. As I write, I’m about three quarters through with it. It’s been a while since I’ve enjoyed anything as much.

  10. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Wolff is an author who somehow missed my radar — I had not even heard of him until last year. I have heard of the Sittenfield book, but that is all. I’ll admit the Laura Bush angle probably caused me to dismiss it, so I guess I should start paying attention.

  11. Kerry Says:

    Kevin,

    I really enjoyed both the book, Old School, and your review. I join you in fully endorsing the book. I think you captured the essential elements of the book and Wolff’s incredible skill in weaving some of the larger issues together with the personal, as in your quote about Bill.

    I would rank this along with A Separate Peace as one of my two favorite “school” novels. I will be reading Frankie Landau-Banks sometime in the not-too-distant future.

  12. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I look forward to your thoughts on Frankie, Kerry. It is much more light-hearted than these other two, but Lockhart has a very good satiric side to her.

  13. leroyhunter Says:

    I linked here from your Skippy Dies review Kevin…am thinking of reading that one and in fact I read this last weekend.

    I’ve read A Good School (brilliant, like all Yates) for “school novel” comparison, and I’ve read In Pharaoh’s Army for a “Wolff” comparison. This is really top drawer, gentler then the Yates and in my view superior to In Pharaoh’s Army for being perfectly, completely realised (I liked the latter but thought it petered out at the end).

    I’ll add my voice to previous praise for the Frost and Rand sequences: I was practically purring reading them.

    I think John Self mentioned Wolff as someone you read and then know you have to read everything else by him: I agree completely. It’s a nice little synchronicity to find this review but refreshing the pleasure the novel gave me makes it harder not to reach straight for more Wolff from the TBR shelf.

  14. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Leroy: Thanks for bringing this post back up. The Yates comparison is appropriate in more than one way — I am working hard to pace my reading of both Yates and Wolff (I only allow myself two stories a month right now). I haven’t got to Pharaoh’s Army yet, so can’t comment.

    I agree about the “gentler” comment with this book. Yates’ school book has a bitterness to it (that isn’t a criticism — in fact it is part of what makes it a good novel). And the word I would use for Skippy Dies is “irreverance” — be it students, staff or parents, Murray chooses everything between a stiletto and a broad axe to have his fun.

  15. Trevor Says:

    I suffered from have-to-read-Wolff-now, leroy, and I loved it, though I’m now through and must only anxiously await his new novel (and no word, that I’m aware of, of when that will come out).

    I also have a bit of good news for you: I thought In Pharaoh’s Army to be his weakest, followed by The Barracks Thief (though I did like each book). Up there with Old School is This Boy’s Life, which is just brilliant.

  16. leroyhunter Says:

    He doesn’t seem particularly prolific Trevor, which is a worry!
    Our Story Begins is on the shelf (calling to me) and This Boy’s Life is on the wishlist. So I’ve a bit to look forward to yet. I’d not noted The Barracks Thief before, will look it out.

    Kevin, I agree that the bitter, angry quality is part of what makes all Yates’ work so attractive and powerful (for me at least). I don’t think either book suffers in the comparison.

  17. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Leroy: One of the things that I like about Yates’ short stories is the way that he “tests” ideas that later find their way into this novels.

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