Engaging Find: Tobias Wolff’s Old School

A book review by Larkin Tom, Director of Foundation Relations

Old School takes place in 1960 at a boys’ prep school in a wooded arcadia, a long train ride north of New York City. “I pictured the black-beamed dining hall loud with voices. The chapel windows blazing red on winter afternoons. The comradely sound of the glee club practicing, the scrape of skates on the outdoor rink, a certain chair in the library. . .” The speaker is the book’s nameless narrator, a scholarship boy from the Pacific Northwest adrift in the chilly waters of WASP privilege.

In just a few years that world of certainties would fracture. Though the old order would eventually knit itself back together again, the iron imperatives of class would never be quite the same. But the mad sprint of the Sixties still lay ahead, and the protagonist must come of age in a world of rules no less binding for being unarticulated. “Class was a fact. Not just the clothes a boy wore, but how he wore them. How he spent his summers. The sports he knew how to play. His way of turning cold at the mention of money, or at the spectacle of ambition too nakedly revealed. You felt it as a depth of ease in certain boys, their innate, affable assurance that they would not have to struggle for a place in the world.”

But the school has its routes to earned success as well. All the boys worship at the shrine of literature. Leading writers are invited to campus to address the student body, and to meet with the boy who submits the winning entry to writing contests judged by the authors themselves. Like his fellows and like adolescents everywhere, the protagonist desires both to conceal his inner life and to reveal himself in a burst of authenticity. In this charged state, he enters upon a quest to write something that will demonstrate his superiority and win him an audience with the most thrilling celebrity author of all: Ernest Hemingway. The plot turns on his ambition and the lengths to which it drives him. As the headmaster of the school says, “Make no mistake … a true piece of writing is a dangerous thing. It can change your life.”

The title Old School, both ironically reverent and dismissive toward the citadels of WASP culture, expresses the book’s deep duality. Like Fitzgerald’s Midwestern dreamers before him, Wolff’s narrator is more than half in love with gothic chapels and the fine green lace of New England woods edging into spring. But the longest shadow the book casts is into the future—into the protagonist’s tour as a soldier in Vietnam; into years of work transforming himself into a writer; into a reconfigured, unexpected world. The most compelling aspect of this complex, successful novel is its artful positioning at a turning point in time, when for a moment the “Old School” still reigned.

 

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