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Edith Wharton, Linda Wagner-Martin
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Leo Tolstoy, Alymer Maude, Louise Maude

Old School

Old School - Tobias Wolff

Want to read something funny and literate? Read this memoir.

There are few books that provide this much hilarity, wisdom and grace.

Old School, though categorized as a novel, is a thinly veiled memoir of Tobias Wolff’s own experience as a scholarship boy in an elite prep school. The action largely centers on the boys’ writing competitions. Three times a year, a famous author would visit the school and choose one boy’s writing as the best. As a reward, that boy earned a private audience with the author. In less adept hands, Wolff’s description of the boys’ frenzied, adolescent writing, within the hothouse climate of the school where every action becomes magnified, could have become overly sardonic, sentimental or condescending. Wolff, though, balances parody with compassion, and sentimentality with honesty.

In one of the many sections that made me laugh out loud, Wolff, describes the boys’ adulation of Ernest Hemingway. Wolff’s parody of Hemingway, which also captures the boys’ seriousness about this legendary writer, is pitch perfect:

We even talked like Hemingway characters, though in travesty, as if to deny our discipleship: That is your bed, and it is a good bed, and you must make it and you must make it well. Or: Today is the day of meatloaf. The meatloaf is swell. It is swell but when it is gone the not-having meatloaf will be tragic and the meatloaf man will not come anymore” (14).

In similar fashion, Wolff describes the boys’ various writing efforts. For anyone who remembers his/her own not quite ready for prime time adolescent writing or has read the occasionally overwrought writing of young adults, Wolff’s descriptions ring true. But Wolff doesn’t overdo it. These are bright boys who have talent. Instead, Wolff shows us their slightly angst-ridden writing by taking it down just a notch. It’s not horrible stuff [well, some of it is:], but is unformed, filled with enough adolescent fervor to be hilarious and heartbreaking.

Wolff’s dead-on writing emerges from the first page. There, he explains how the epic 1960 battle between Nixon and Hemingway garnered less attention than the writing competition and the impending arrival of Robert Frost. After dismissing Nixon, as a somewhat tattered “scold,” Wolff captures the way the boys view Kennedy’s mystique in two crisp sentences: “Kennedy, though—here was a warrior, an ironist, terse and unhysterical. He had his clothes under control” (5).

In addition to Wolff’s impeccable writing, for [good:]readers, much of the book’s enjoyment derives from the many descriptions of famous literature. Wolff’s trot through Hemingway’s short stories brought back their humanity and contours so sharply, I felt as though I’d just finished re-reading them.

However, Wolff’s section on Ayn Rand, the second visiting author, proves unforgettable. The protagonist, referred to as “the boy” becomes infatuated with Ayn Rand, and reads The Fountainhead four times. The book’s effect proves unfortunate.

On a vacation break, the boy views his grandfather and (second) wife with bemused pity. Aghast at their provincialism, the boy flees from their house at every opportunity. Armed with cigarettes, the boy walks the “glistening streets in a fury of derision, wet and cold, sneering at everyone except the drunkards and bums who’d at least had the guts not to buy into the sham” (69). Though filled with confidence that his writing will rise above the mundane prattle of the collectivist herd, instead, the boy faints in class and winds up in the infirmary. He wakes to find that he’s missed most of Ayn Rand’s visit, except for her final interview, which he sneaks out to see. There, he sees a different Ayn Rand than the one he’d envisioned. Rather than brave, she is cold, and when Rand looks at the boy, still very sick, he can see her distaste:

…I saw her face…the face she’d turned on me when I sneezed. Her disgust had power. This was no girlish shudder, this was spiritual disgust, and it forced on me a vision of the poor specimen under scrutiny, chapped lips, damp white face, rheumy eyes and all. She made me feel that to be sick was contemptible. (91)

As flat-out funny as the Rand episode is, Wolff treads a fine line. We see what the boy learns, but it is an evolution rather than a hammer blow.

I can’t pin down everything that made this book work so well. It isn’t flawless. At one point, Wolff’s narrative stitching comes undone, and it’s clear that the book—written in seqments—could use more cohesion.

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PROOF: In reference to the comments made on Jon Gruenning’s review of Ex Libris, here is a snippet of what my husband—the highlighter and vocabulary seeker—did to Old School after he thought I'd finished reading it.