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.