No Words Wasted Sale

Wednesday, December 10th, 2003


Old School

by Tobias Wolff

Writing: A Love Story

A review by Adrienne Miller

It's 1961, and our narrator's final year at a very swanky, and very self-consciously literary, boarding school. The school's Little Lord Fauntleroys in-training are, with the exception of the narrator, rich, and they're all thoroughly enamored of the "literary life." The unnamed narrator is a scholarship student, motherless, and conflicted about his Jewish ancestry. He's identityless; he apes the manner and style of those around him, going so far as to even teach himself how to write by transcribing, word by word, short stories by his heroes.

His big hero: Hemingway.

The school hosts several visiting writers a year, and each writer is asked to select an outstanding student story. This year, it's the motherload: Frost, Rand, and, yes, Hemingway. The first kid wins the Robert Frost contest with a short story so slavishly obsequious (its title is, odiously, "First Frost") that the grizzled old Poet Laureate has no choice but to consider it a cheeky homage, not the grave piece of suck-uppery it is. The second kid is selected by Ayn Rand for a kind of Triumph-of-the-Will-themed sci-fi. (Says the narrator of his classmate's story, "The Day the Cows Came Home", "it managed to combine his vegetarianism with his interest in space travel.") I should say that I personally have a weakness for Ayn Rand jokes, and I'm glad to know I'm not alone in this regard. The chapter in which Rand comes to visit is the most delightfully venal section in the book ("Ayn Rand dipped her head in acknowledgement and gave a bitter smile. My heroes are impossible, they say. Unreal. And why do they say that? Because they want you to believe that heroism itself is unreal!") Our narrator does win the Hemingway contest, but not without a little help, as it were, from his friends. Remarkably, Old School, while Tobias Wolff's seventh book, is his first novel. It's an elegant ode to writers, and to writing, from one of our most exquisite storytellers.

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