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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