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The Atlantic Monthly
Tuesday, December 2nd, 2003


Old School

by Tobias Wolff

This Boy's Lit

A review by Thomas Mallon

Near the end of This Boy's Life (1989), Tobias Wolff's memoir of childhood (and his best-known book), the adolescent hero escapes a rough home and an indifferent early-sixties public education in Washington State by the grace of a scholarship to the fancy Hill School, back east. Wolff's new volume, Old School, is offered as a novel, but it seems in some respects to continue the story. Readers learn, for example, of the young protagonist's hardscrabble days in Washington, and hear occasional mention of the duplicitous father they've come to know not just from This Boy's Life but also from work by Wolff's brother, Geoffrey (The Duke of Deception, 1979).

Neither Hill nor the young narrator is named this time out, but each is rendered with vivid sympathy — especially the school. A progressive headmaster is trying to nudge it toward meritocracy, banishing class consciousness in favor of literary snobbery. The masters who teach English already receive more deference than their colleagues in other disciplines, and brief visits by such belletristic eminences as Edmund Wilson and Robert Penn Warren are occasions of great excitement on the wooded campus. "The absence of an actual girl to compete for meant that every other prize became feminized," the narrator tells us. The writing contests, whose winners get a private audience with the visiting author, are fought with special fierceness.

Wolff's hero wishes for anointing by "hands that had written living stories and poems, hands that had touched the hands of other writers." As the novel opens, in the fall of 1960, it is the wrinkled and famous palms of Robert Frost for which he and the other boys make greedy grasp. The narrator's rivals are nicely characterized by the literary styles of their submissions: George Kellogg works in traditional forms and already seems "more professor than writer," let alone student; Jeff Purcell, trying to transcend his privileged background, has "written a ballad about a miner being sent deep into the earth to perish in a cave-in while the mine owner hand-feeds filet mignon to his hunting dogs." When it comes to prose efforts, the narrator and his roommate — both of whom strain to hide the fact that their fathers are Jewish — are almost comically in debt to Hemingway.

Old School's literary joustings turn it into an offbeat commonplace book of what was no doubt Wolff's own youthful reading. The author parodies the visiting writers — their platform personae and interview manners — with charm and astuteness. The book's comic high point turns out to involve not Frost's affectations of rusticity but the appearance of Ayn Rand, who has been invited by a kindly trustee in the mistaken belief that she's an ordinary conservative. The personal cruelty she displays during an ex cathedra fireside chat — "Boys! Please! You are born to be giants, not sacrifices to some ... brainless slattern worrying about the next payment on the refrigerator" — helps to bring the narrator out of his own brief Howard Roark phase. A reacquaintance with Hemingway's wounded, heroically tentative Nick Adams completes the process: "You can't read 'Indian Camp' and then go back to The Fountainhead. Everything seems bloated and cheesy ..."

The announcement of a visit by Hemingway himself induces two character-building catastrophes, one for the narrator and one for the dean, the first involving plagiarism and the second some personal mythmaking in the manner of the historian Joseph Ellis, who let his Mount Holyoke students believe that his own early history had been rather more dramatic than it really was. Wolff adds unexpected, affecting twists to each transgression and consequence; the results are altogether more satisfying than the way he left hanging, morally and otherwise, the fraud at the end of This Boy's Life — namely, the author's own faking of his way into the Hill School. Perhaps this novel (dedicated to "my teachers") is meant to be, in some late way, penitential. (Wolff was, for whatever reason, expelled from Hill.) In any case, it is a fine offering, manly in spirit and style, less hangdog than the somewhat Carverian memoir.

Throughout Old School, Wolff displays exceptional skill in capturing the small sights and sensations that evoke the whole rarefied world he's taking us back to: "the smell of floor wax and wool and boys living close together in overheated rooms"; the "great Persian rug ... covered with cookie crumbs." He conveys the sublimation and sexual messaging that occur all at once when the boys sing to a master's young wife ("It was a kind of ravishing"), and with the same exactitude discerns the boys' wary relations with one another.

Old School's somewhat pedagogical nature inclines one toward a few schoolmasterish objections. Its gradual accrual (three episodes from it appeared in The New Yorker) may have lulled the author into writing a last chapter that, although a rattling good story, seems more like an appendage than a conclusion. I furthermore think that these cowlicked white teenagers are a little ahead of their time in calling Jackie Kennedy a "fox." And let me say this, above all, Mr. Wolff: the lack of quotation marks around the dialogue is a ridiculous piece of postmodern pretentiousness that has no place in your book. Not when it can stand with the best of what some old boys (Louis Auchincloss, Richard Yates) have produced in a waning American genre.

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