Tobias Wolff is best known as a memoirist both for This Boy’s Life and In Pharaoh’s Army, as well as a fine short-story writer. Old School, his first novel, though clearly labeled a novel, takes the form of a first-person memoir about a schoolboy’s encounters with books and their authors.
Indeed, the story is neatly divided into chapters, each of which centers on a different famous American author. Each is a guest invited by the headmaster to address the prep school assembly and favor with a personal audience the student whose written work, poem or story, takes the writer’s fancy. Since literature is king at the school, the competition for such a boon is fierce among the all-male student body.
My first two reactions, as I read, were that this was really another memoir disguised as a novel and that Wolff’s choice of authors simply mirrored his adolescent literary development. But on unexpectedly hearing him interviewed on NPR recently, I realized that I was wrong and that he had chosen his genre with care and deliberation. For one thing, Ayn Rand, the most explosive of the invitees, never made it to his own school; his schoolmates, moreover, are largely composites; and, finally, as he ruefully admitted, his own adolescent experience was not nearly so complex as his narrator’s.
But for all that, the novel is still a bildungsroman, a young man’s story of growing up with a secret in an alien world where he needs to win the top prize, an hour with his—and just about every other 1950’s schoolboy’s literary hero—Ernest Hemingway. On the way to that transcendent goal our hero has several setbacks, starting with an unfortunate tune he innocently whistles within hearing of an outraged Jewish staff member, the Nazi “Horst Wessel Song.” Ironically, the one thing he won’t reveal, but that would clear him of evil intent, is his own carefully concealed Jewish background.
Before the story ends there will be another, deeper deception that will alter his life and, paradoxically, link him more closely to the school and one of its most beloved masters, who has his own Hemingway secret. Not surprisingly, these connections also involve books and their authors. In the meantime we are treated to cameos of Robert Frost and Ayn Rand, each of whose visits sparks off a flurry of composition by acolytes eager to bask in their reflected glory. Frost comes across as a genial curmudgeon devoted to poetic form and contemptuous of “modern poetry,” while Rand anoints herself as the only serious novelist around, heaping special scorn on Hemingway. Such lèse-majesté shocks our hero out of a temporary infatuation with Rand, but even more, it allows him to see—and reject—some of his own arrogance.
Determined to win the Hemingway interview but unable to get anything down on paper, he starts typing out Hemingway stories in the hope that will stimulate his own creative juices. In desperation, the night before the story is due, he flips through other schools’ literary journals and comes upon a story of a poor girl surrounded, like himself, by the rich and confident, who must use subterfuge and disguise to secure a place. Identification and need sweep him away, and soon he is typing out her story, changing only the pronouns and other identifying markers. Papa picks the purloined story, the deceit is discovered, and our hero is cast out of paradise—but not forever. Like the prodigal, he will make his return, in time, as a successful and legitimate writer.
Wolff’s portrait of the “Old School” captures its appeal for a bright young scholarship student but also limns its unspoken prejudices and self-satisfaction. Ideas count and wit is prized, no matter the source, but the gap between the trust-funded and the strivers remains unclosed. But his largest risk-taking involves the story’s turning point. Can we accept our hero’s acceptance of his plagiarism—that his intense identification with the story makes it his own? Only, I think, if we can accept the power of fiction to change our lives so dramatically that we can imagine identifying completely with the life of another. It is this confrontation of morality and imagination that gives Wolff’s first novel its peculiar power.