December 2003

Melissa Roy


Old School by Tobias Wolff

I approached Tobias Wolff’s Old School with a sense of anticipation. I’d never read any of Wolff’s other books, but had heard and read a great deal about him in recent years. Old School is the fictional story of a young boy attending a prestigious New England prep school and, more importantly, his struggle for identity within the world around him. Skilled as a writer and popular with his schoolmates, the narrator struggles with himself for many reasons: he compulsively hides his Jewish heritage from his friends (even his roommate, who is also Jewish; even from his headmaster, when it would have benefited him to reveal it); he feels that he has not lived up to his creative potential as a writer, which he later realizes is because he hasn’t found the “truth” of his own life; he can’t quite fit in with his wealthy schoolmates and take pains to conceal the fact that he is on scholarship to the school; he wrestles with belief in the ideas and truths imparted to him by the writers whom he admires and how he might apply those to his own writing, to his own life.

The story itself, in fact, is structured largely around those writers. The prep school that the narrator attends has a program through which prestigious and influential writers visit the campus and give a lecture or reading to the students, one of whom is chosen through a writing competition to have a private audience with the writer. Robert Frost is the first writer to visit after the start of the book and, while the narrator admires him greatly and submits a piece for consideration in the competition, he loses to a rather spineless, ingratiating friend who was selected by the poet because his poem seemed to be sending a “barb” to Mr. Frost in the form of a parody but was, in fact, intended by the boy just to pay homage to him. The second author to come to the school, amidst a great deal of controversy, is Ayn Rand. The narrator had never read Rand’s work before the announcement that she would be visiting, but on a break from school he purchases The Fountainhead and reads it on the train to visit his grandfather and his new wife at their embarrassingly humble and boring home. He becomes obsessed with the book, with Howard and Dominique, and with Rand herself. He reads the book over and over, eventually fancying himself to be like Howard -- destined for greatness, refusing to compromise -- and delays his entry for the competition until the last minute, supposing that the greatest piece of work ever to emerge from him with spontaneously create itself. He imagines that his selection as the winner and his meeting with Rand are inevitable. Unfortunately, he falls severely ill (the haze was not one of creativity, but one of illness) and is unable to submit an entry or attend Rand’s reading. He does, however, escape the infirmary in time to attend the coffee clutch which follows the reading, during which Rand and her black-clad posse are predictably (although not to the narrator) haughty, disdainful, and generally obnoxious. He is devastated, his opinions of Howard and Rand deflated and his hopes for a future of creative integrity dashed, and he returns to his previous worship of greats such as Hemingway.

Hemingway himself is then selected to be the next visiting writer and the narrator is, as could be expected, beside himself. In his desire to prove himself to his idol, to express himself in a way that more agrees with the infirmities and inconsistencies of the lives of Hemingway’s characters rather than the uncompromising rigidity of Rand’s, the narrator places himself in a situation that the reader can see coming for a country mile. His own integrity is compromised and he is removed from the school, destined to take a path in life more suited to his own background, one where he has to face the truths he’s tried to hide and make himself a better, more honest person. That situation, of course, is one in which he plagiarizes another’s work and uses it to enter the competition for Hemingway’s private audience. The passages in which he discovers the work he plagiarizes, though, are some of the book’s most powerful: the story written by a Jewish girl who had graduated years before from a sister school rings so true to him that he begins to believe it is his own, to the point that when his lie is discovered he can’t imagine that he didn’t actually write it himself.

The story is essentially one about lies, about what the desire to impress will do to a person, even a person of integrity, and thus rings quite true in light of some of the recent breaches of journalistic integrity that have occurred. Even without that element, though, the book about character -- having it, finding it, needing it -- which is something common to all of us as humans. I believe that this is a quality piece of literature with a well-developed plot and characters that is worthy of a recommendation.

Old School by Tobias Wolff
Alfred A. Knopf
ISBN 0375401466
195 Pages