Sometimes solemn, invariably precocious and pathologically self-eviscerating, the unnamed narrator of Tobias Wolff’s first novel thirsts for anointment by the American literati. But like recent bêtes noirs of American letters, a thirst for unearned greatness leads him astray.
After two award-winning story collections and as many praised-through-the-roof memoirs (This Boy’s Life and In Pharaoh’s Army), it’s hard to believe this is Tobias Wolff’s first novel. Those familiar with his heart-stomping memoirs can’t help but ponder the line between fiction and autobiography, as Old School is set firmly in Wolff country: adolescent identity formation on the shakier rungs of the class ladder.
The time is the early 1960s, the place the kind of New England prep school where ruling class boys are vetted for the board room, the golf course and the Senate floor—the sort of pedigreed institution capable of bringing visiting writers of the stature of Robert Frost, Ayn Rand and Ernest Hemingway to address its tweedy tyros.
In this lair of privilege resides Wolff’s narrator, a scholarship boy for whom literary achievement is tantamount to victory in his very own class struggle. It’s a struggle Wolff couldn’t be more attuned to, with passages reading like a cross between a Leninist tract and a Blue-Blooding for Dummies guide:
“Class was a fact. Not just the clothes a boy wore, but how he wore them. How he spent his summers. The sports he knew how to play. His way of turning cold at the mention of money, or at the spectacle of ambition too nakedly displayed.”
While Old School’s boy has figured out the dress and many a bourgeois discretion, ambition is the one thing he’s incapable of keeping a lid on. Where many male coming-of-age novels take their narrative sustenance from peer politics, sexual conquest or the sporting life, Wolff’s is devoted exclusively to how literature intoxicates young minds. This is no Oprah’s Book Club chumminess, but reading as a form of hero worship taken to dangerous extremes—a drunk-on-words bender capable of stirring pathological delusions.
Wolff’s narrator is constantly assessing his station within the small yet formidable circle of fellow aspirants that comprise the school’s literary journal. Their World Cup is an award bestowed by the visiting writer that includes one-on-one “audience” time. Of course it’s not merely the prize that’s so alluring, but the author’s imprimatur of potential greatness—the so-called anointment.
A class outsider whose half-Jewishness causes him to live within a constructed persona, Wolff’s schoolboy is more than a little ambitious, and therefore vulnerable. Couple this with the prolonged gender segregation of his environment and the resulting “feminization of competition” (the idea that without women around, all repressed sexuality is channeled into competition), it’s easy to see the inevitability of a breakdown:
“For honors in sport, scholarship, music, and writing we cracked our heads together like mountain rams, and to make your mark as a writer was equal proof of puissance to a brilliant season on the gridiron.”
Wolff gracefully captures a time and place when even the most graying of writers were as revered and contested as any rock star, their verse quoted with the breezy familiarity with which any mall-rat might regurgitate a Slim Shady stanza. In this world, the Faulkner-Hemingway divide is as seismic as anything one might expect high school boys to bicker about: cars, sports, and basic delinquency. What’s so wonderful about Wolff’s evocation is how he deftly avoids sentimentality by delving into the dark side of “readers gone wild.” In any number of places the author could have easily inserted snide or wistful generational broadsides along the lines of “if only kids today cared more about Faulkner.” Instead, he lets the reader play with the suggestion.
Where the candy-apple youths of Dead Poets Society thirsted on poetry in a sappy, semi-subversive way, Wolff’s narrator uses it as an identity crutch. Reading The Fountainhead four times straight, he not only adopts Rand’s contempt for the weak, but becomes so febrile from her persona that he has to spend several weeks in the infirmary.
When he eventually meets her, however, he finds the savagely nihilistic view of humanity that was so compelling in print to be utterly vulgar, unforgiving and soulless in the flesh. In a recent New York Times Book Review column, critic Laura Miller takes issue with the notion advanced by activist librarians that reading is inherently virtuous. Wolff’s narrator proves the opposite. Excessive reading, coupled with his very particular class and personal contexts, leads to an act that is not only heretical, but is performed under the delusion that it is somehow divined. In this context, reading is just another way to get one’s identity on backward.
Old School is an outsider’s view of class known to those who’ve long dined at the trough of privilege, but never comfortably. Though we can see the narrator’s fall coming for some time, the blow is no less severe when it finally hits. Wolff’s voice is infused with a complex, disturbed recollection from one who knows his superiors better than they know themselves. Their world may be alienating, horribly elitist and fraught with moral ambiguity, but it is not one the author wishes to condemn. For all its faults and his raw memories of failure and folly, it’s a world for which the narrator pines.
Early in the story, our narrator fancies writing as a means of grasping power. What he finds is that the pen may be mightier than the sword, but it can cut both ways: hard and deep.