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"I'd seen my own life laid bare on the page."
on November 4, 2003
In this homage to literature, the literary life, and the power of literature to influence a reader's life, Tobias Wolff focuses his attention on a small New England prep school in 1960, a school in which students live and breathe "the writing life." The headmaster has studied with Robert Frost, and the Dean is thought to have been a friend of Ernest Hemingway during World War I. To the boys, the English Department is "a kind of chivalric order," where they practice the "ritual swordplay of their speech."
For these students, the highlights of the school year are the three-times-a-year appearances of literary luminaries. When a writer visits, one boy has the opportunity to have a private audience with him, an honor for which the boys contend in vigorously competitive writing contests. The speaker/narrator, a scholarship student, is desperate to win an audience: "My aspirations were mystical," he says. "I wanted to receive the laying on of hands that had written living stories and poems." As various writers--Robert Frost, Ayn Rand, and finally, everyone's idol, Ernest Hemingway--are scheduled to appear at the school, the reader observes the growth of the boys, especially the speaker, as they are influenced by and react to the contest, to each other, to the visiting writers, and to the writers' speeches. In the contest to meet Hemingway, the novel reaches its peak, and in a shocking way, the speaker's life changes forever.
Wolff's novel is most remarkable for its point of view and for its conciseness. We never know what the speaker looks like or even his name, since it is through his eyes that the entire novel is filtered. He is interested in poems and short stories and philosophy and writing, all of which he talks about in detail, not in the observation of his surroundings. The limited setting of a New England prep school expands as the speaker ages and moves from school to the crueler outside world, and in later chapters, in which we see him as a mature writer, we also see how he uses some of his school experiences in his fiction, some of which appears within this novel.
Old School is a novel which students of writing will treasure--for its revelations of what it means to be a writer, its insights into the thinking of a perceptive teenager who is both idealistic and pragmatic, its irony, and its remarkable narrative voice. The themes are beautifully realized, and not one word is wasted or rings false. Though Wolff says that "No true account can be given of how or why you become a writer," he comes as close here to illustrating that process as in any other novel I've ever read about the writing life. Mary Whipple