Posted by: Sally Ingraham | October 29, 2010

Old School

old schoolby 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


  1. I liked it too, Sarah – finished it last night, but probably won’t have my post up until Sunday or so. I’m not surprised that Wolff is known for his short stories – the separate, titled chapters of this novel felt quite self-contained, as if each had its own arc. I especially liked those final few chapters, in which we see the events described from other perspectives. The Susan Friedman chapter was particularly gratifying, I thought, and I loved the detail that Arch Makepiece becomes more and more averse to the works of Hemingway as his time at the school goes on.

    • There were lots of great details and sub plots that were so intriguing in this story. I too really liked the bit about Susan Friedman. In fact most of the side characters were far more interesting than the narrator himself – which seems fitting.

  2. Yes, this book is indeed a fast-moving indulgence. And I picked up on that theme too – of the writer’s struggle to find his voice, especially in such a conformist, tradition-bound atmosphere. Overall, I think what made this book most attractive, to me, was its incredibly scholarly setting. But then I realized, as I read further, that I might tire of this place quickly. It was very isolated.

    • I always like the scholarly setting, perhaps even more so because having been homeschooled I’ve never really experienced a classroom. I love the isolated focus of the school setting – but I’ve also read plenty of stories where that setting can turn nasty. I’m fascinated with both, and while I long to immerse myself in scholarly pursuits – dusty libraries, etc. – I haven’t made a huge effort yet! Anyway, the setting in this book was a big part of the indulgence factor for me. 🙂

  3. I read somewhere that portions of the book appeared in the New Yorker which makes sense as some of the sections are so self-contained. I wonder if one of them was the Ayn Rand Section?

    I enjoyed the book, with its scholarly setting and its discussions of writing, reading, and immersing one’s self in the process of writing.

    I have posted a review at my site

    Thank you for picking such an interesting book and I look forward to reading some of the other reviews.

    • Thanks for reading along! I’ll be sure to pop over to your site asap – it’s a crazy week for me currently though… I think the Ayn Rand section was one of my favorites – his sneeze at a most inopportune moment was priceless…!

  4. […] what we have here is a failure to communicate: nonsense by sarah […]

  5. […] What we have here is a failure to communicate Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)#18 – Old School by Tobias WolffMaking Book on Book Club […]

  6. This wasn’t a bad choice for my first non-structured book group read. I may well join you for more.

    • Glad you liked it, and I hope you do. I’m super excited about Vilnius Poker myself. 🙂

  7. The bad news is that I liked this much less than you did, Sarah. The good news is that I liked this WAY more than Tender Morsels! Just so you know, you had me virtually rolling on the floor with laughter with your reference to “discussions of varying ferocity” generated by your last pick for the group.

    I think Wolff’s a good writer and all, but I wasn’t convinced at times by his voice when he was talking about the narrator’s youth. I also felt he had more craft than soul going for him here. The story seemed a little bland to me overall, but I recognize that these are reactions to him as a writer rather than critiques of his craft for the most part. In other words, I’ve read worse, ha ha!

    • More craft than soul… Interesting, and I think I know what you mean by that. I very much like Wolff’s style, but that’s me. Style aside, I can see a certain blandness – and I definitely liked the end when the story moved to Arch Makepiece quite a bit more than much of the rest of the story, even though I really enjoyed the whole thing. I’m really curious to read your review now, when I can get to it!

  8. Great choice, Sarah. Just disregard Richard’s Bovary hangover (kidding). I mentioned in my post that many call this the “in between memoir” despite this ostensibly being a work of fiction. But memoir is so easy to conflate with fiction – the narrative arc, relativity of truth, etc.

    I love Wolff’s writing too and his wicked sense of humor. And whereas this book was super enjoyable to me, I prefer his short stories. Love them. Have you read the collection Our Story Begins? Highly recommend.

    • I think I might go ahead and purchase a Wolff short story collection as a Christmas present for myself – if I can wait that long! I have the feeling that I’ll really dig his stories and I definitely like to own collections so that I can dip into them at my leisure.

  9. I really enjoyed this, too, Sarah. Finished it in two days as well. Not a boring sentence in the whole book! It convinced me even more why I should not read Ayn Rand, ha! 😀

    • Haha, I just had a friend who read The Fountainhead and was blown away. She almost had me convinced – thank goodness Wolff was around to bring an alternative view! I’m still curious, but in no hurry. I’m glad you liked Old School, and it’s GREAT to hear from you. Hope all is well. 🙂

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