by Tobias Wolff
I usually read the books we picked for our Non-Structured Book Group slowly over the course the month, but Old School captured and held my attention so thoroughly that I read it over the course of two days. This was my second personal addition to our reading list, and unlike my first pick (which sparked several discussions of varying ferocity, and which no one in our group liked very much at all) I finished this book with a contented sigh. With its classic New England boys school setting, and its wealth of literary references and the discussion of how a writer develops their art, this book was pure indulgence for me.
The narrator of the book looks back at his days in prep school, where he was at home and in love with the scholarly setting, grateful for the scholarship that lent him freedom from a mundane home life, and intent upon becoming a skilled writer. The school regularly received visits from famous authors, and the boys competed to write something worthy of being picked by the author, thus winning for themselves an introduction and one-on-one walk about the headmaster’s garden. Frost was a comfortably inspiring figure, Ayn Rand a far more controversial one, while Hemingway set the school abuzz to such an extent that even boys who had never before put pen to paper began thinking that they were inspired word-smiths.
The author visits carry the story along, and meanwhile the narrator introduces his friends and teachers, describes the policies and politics of the school, and at length explores his own development as a writer, his attempts to fit in, and his struggle to return to a truer version of himself. I really enjoyed the ideas about how an artists finds and develops his or her voice, but even more so I was interested by the discussion about how literature constantly impacts and changes the reader. At one point the narrator becomes obsessed with The Fountainhead and he is thrilled to discover that the attitudes and actions of the characters he admires are beginning to rub off on him, only to be disturbed by the same fact awhile later when the obsession has worn off. It was also interesting to me to see how he often had certain expectations regarding an author, based on the words on the page, but repeatedly ran aground on the reality of the actual person – all things that I can readily relate to, and part of what makes reading and writing such an adventure.
I recognized a lot of myself in the narrator as a boy. The narrator as the writer he became, looking back at his youth reminded me of Dickens narrators – David Copperfield, or Pip from Great Expectations. Like them, he wrote about himself as a youth with biting, but slightly amused honesty – painfully perceptive about the workings of his mind at that time, aware of what caused him to do things but able to see them from the perspective of years of experience. Sometimes this attitude comes off oddly, even badly, and I don’t care for the narrative voice. In Dickens and here I enjoyed it very much though.
The only thing that was strange for me was the very memoir feel to it, and that is simply because it is a work of fiction that I know is based more or less on Wolff’s own experiences. I have read very little of his work – in fact I’ve only read his famous memoir This Boy’s Life – and Old School could almost be the sequel. The whole time I was reading it, I struggled to differentiate the story from the events in This Boy’s Life and stop myself from mentally linking the two up. There are slight differences in characters, timelines, and locations, but it could almost work – and my brain kept trying to make it do so! Oh well.
Once again I am thrilled by Wolff’s writing style. He’s so good at his spare but live-wire style. And the ending was awkwardly amazing, a sort of tangent to the overall arc of the tale, but so oddly suitable. An excellent book. I’ll be reading more from Wolff. It’s time to pick up his famous short stories. Having read only his longer works, I’ll be very curious (and very excited) to see what he does with a short piece.
Two more books to go – Vilnius Poker by Ricardas Gavelis in November, and for December Clandestine in Chile by Gabriel García Márquez. There is already talk of a list for next year, and perhaps the group of us will eventually come up with a name for ourselves other than “non-structured” since we’ve actually become somewhat organized… I’m glad this reading venture will continue and very glad, I must add, that I at least liked the book I picked this time round!
Many days later – Here’s a roundup of links to the thoughts of other recent readers of this book:
E.L. Fay at This Book and I Could Be Friends
Emily at Evening All Afternoon
Pburt at Reflections from the Hinterland
Lizzy at Lizzy’s Literary Life
Richard at Caravana de recuerdos
Frances of Nonsuch Book