Review: Old School, Tobias Wolff

I am going to say my worst thing first. Stand by for enthusiastic praise. Tobias Wolff is a short story writer, and in Old School, his first novel, you can tell. It is less like a novel, and more like a collection of short stories about the same characters on the same theme. Mostly this was fine, but the last two chapters felt weird and abrupt, in a way they wouldn’t have done if this were a collection of short stories. Only if it had been a collection of short stories, I’d probably never have read it. That would have been a shame.

Old School is set at an all-boys boarding school with literary connections. Three prominent writers come to the school each year, and the boys in their final year are encouraged to write poems or stories for these writers. Each writer picks the best poem/story, and the boy who wrote it is permitted a private meeting with that writer. Our unnamed protagonist has reached his final year, and he longs to be chosen by one of the authors: Robert Frost, Ayn Rand, and Ernest Hemingway.

This is a book about adolescence and creativity, imitation and influence. Wolff does a superb job of exploring the way teenagers try on different versions of themselves, test-driving personalities to see how they go over with the world. Our unnamed protagonist does unsympathetic things and thinks unsympathetic thoughts, but I didn’t lose sympathy for him. He is clearly searching, almost desperately, for people and ways of thinking to define himself with, or against; and without being terribly explicit about it, Wolff manages to convey that the unsympathetic personas he is trying on are, or could be, temporary.

What made the book wonderful for me was Wolff’s wicked sense of humor about the writers who visit over the course of the year. Robert Frost gets off the easiest, or perhaps I just felt that way because my opinion of him appears to dovetail so nicely with the authors. Hemingway comes off a little crazy, or maybe I just thought that because I think Hemingway was crazy. In any case, what Wolff is really poking fun at here is the way the boys fall under the influence of each of the writers:

Anyway, I myself was in debt to Hemingway – up to my ears. So was Bill. 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 the 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.

I laughed out loud at so many parts of this book. I wish I could just type out the first few chapters for you, because they’re so, so funny. When Wolff wants to make you cringe, or ache with sympathy, he’ll do it, but a lot of the time he just makes you (well, me) remember adolescence, and giggle. More:

I had been holed up most of the weekend trying to finish my poem for the competition. What I’d been working on was a hunter’s elegiac meditation over the body of an elk he’s killed after tracking it for days through the mountains. This wasn’t typical of my poems, abstract and void of narrative as they tended to be. It fell into the pattern of a group of my stories in which a young fellow named Sam evaded the civilizing demands of his socialite mother and logger-baron father by fleeing into the forests of the Pacific Northwest, where he did much hunting and fishing and laconic romancing with free-spirited women he met on the trail….

But this poem was giving me a headache. For one thing, how was the hunter, having trailed the elk so far into the woods, going to get it out? How big was an elk, anyway? Really big, I guessed — so after offering thanks to the spirit of the elk for giving him all that meat, the hunter was going to look ridiculous walking away with one lousy haunch over his shoulder. Maybe I should’ve made it a regular deer. But deer didn’t have the majesty of elk.

and (I’m stopping after this)

I was discovering the force of my will. To read The Fountainhead was to feel this caged power, straining like a dammed-up river to break loose and crush every impediment to its free running. I understood that nothing stood between me and my greatest desires — nothing between me and greatness itself — but the temptation to doubt my will and bow to counsels of moderation, expedience, and conventional morality, and shrink into the long, slow death of respectability.

Oh, Lord. Tobias Wolff is a funny man. I may even make an exception to my general rule of avoiding short stories like the plague, and investigate one of his volumes of short stories.

I wish I had read Ayn Rand. Not–and please don’t misunderstand me on this point–because I have any interest whatsoever in reading Ayn Rand, but because Tobias Wolff skewers Robert Frost and Ernest Hemingway so skewily, and I am sure his skewering of Ayn Rand was equally wicked, but it partly passed over my head, because I have never read Ayn Rand. The chapter on her was still very very funny, but part of me also felt sad for Ayn Rand for being so mercilessly mocked. Even though she probably deserves it! Which I would not know if she did or not because I have never read The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged.

(I just remembered one of my favorite lines from one of the best scenes in my all-time favorite play Angels in America. One of the characters has just had the crap kicked out of him by his significant other, and as he’s lying on the floor bleeding he croaks, “It was like a sex scene from an Ayn Rand novel, huh?”) (Holy crap, y’all, that scene in Angels in America is superb. If you haven’t seen the HBO miniseries of Angels in America, go forth and do so. You may report back to me afterward with appropriate expressions of delight.)

Oh, yeah, and Tobias Wolff inexplicably doesn’t use quotation marks. Why? Don’t ask me. I never understand this impulse to ignore quotation marks. If you’re not Celie from The Color Purple, you should use damn quotation marks.

Thanks to Frances and Emily for reviewing this book and making it sound so great I put a hold on it at the library that very day. I thoroughly enjoyed it! For other reviews, see here.