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Old School Hardcover – Deckle Edge, November 4, 2003
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Tobias Wolff's Old School is at once a celebration of literature and delicate hymn to a lost innocence of American life and art. Set in a New England prep school in the early 1960s, the novel imagines a final, pastoral moment before the explosion of the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and the suicide of Ernest Hemingway.
The unnamed narrator is one of several boys whose life revolves around the school's English teachers, those polymaths who seemed to know "exactly what was most worth knowing." For the boys, literature is the center of life, and their obsession culminates in a series of literary competitions during their final year. The prize in each is a private audience with a visiting writer who serves as judge for the entries.
At first, the narrator is entirely taken with the battle. As he fails in his effort to catch Robert Frost's attention and then is unable--due to illness--to even compete for his moment with Ayn Rand, he devotes his energies to a masterpiece for his hero, Hemingway. But, confronting the blank page, the narrator discovers his cowardice, his duplicity. He has withheld himself, he realizes, even from his roommate. He has used his fiction to create a patrician gentility, a mask for his middle class home and his Jewish ancestry. Through the competition for Hemingway, fittingly, all of his illusions about literature dissolve.
Old School is a small, neatly made book, spare and clear in its prose. Each chapter is self-contained and free of anything extraneous to the essentials of plot, mood, and character. Near the end of the novel, the narrator, now a respected writer, imagines that he might one day write about his school days. But he is daunted. "Memory," he says, "is a dream to begin with, and what I had was a dream of memory, not to be put to the test." Old School enters this interplay between dreams and the adult interrogation of memory. Risking sentimentality, Wolff confronts a golden age that never was. From the confrontation, he distills a powerful novel of failed expectations and, ultimately, redemptive self-awareness. --Patrick O'Kelley
From Publishers Weekly
A scholarship boy at a New England prep school grapples with literary ambition and insecurity in this lucid, deceptively sedate novel, set in the early 1960s and narrated by the unnamed protagonist from the vantage point of adulthood. Each year, the school hosts a number of visiting writers, and the boys in the top form are allowed to compete for a private audience by composing a poem or story. The narrator judges the skills of his competitors, avidly exposing his classmates' weaknesses and calculating their potential ("I knew better than to write George off.... He could win.... Bill was a contender"). His own chances are hurt by his inability to be honest with himself and examine his ambivalent feelings about his Jewish roots. After failing to win audiences with Robert Frost and Ayn Rand, he is determined to be chosen by the last and best guest, legendary Ernest Hemingway. The anxiety of influence afflicts all the boys, but in crafting his final literary offering, the narrator discovers inspiration in imitation, finding his voice in someone else's. The novel's candid, retrospective narration ruefully depicts its protagonist's retreat further and further behind his public facade ("I'd been absorbed so far into my performance that nothing else came naturally"). Beneath its staid trappings, this is a sharply ironic novel, in which love of literature is counterbalanced by bitter disappointment (as one character bluntly puts it, "[Writing] just cuts you off and makes you selfish and doesn't really do any good"). Wolff, an acclaimed short story writer (The Night in Question, etc.) and author of the memoir This Boy's Life, here offers a delicate, pointed meditation on the treacherous charms of art.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Top customer reviews
The overall plot is that the youth is in his final year of "high school" at a private boarding school. There are guest writers that come to the school and a competition is set up where student submit works, and the winner gets a private audience with the visiting writer. The writers are Robert Frost, Ayn Rand, and Ernest Hemingway.
Tobias Wolf does an admirable job of placing the visiting writers into the school setting and allowing those writers to "become real" to the reader. Robert Frost was done well, and led the plot along in an excellent manner. Ayn Rand, was perhaps the best written of the three and she comes off as truly a despicable person (which seems accurate from reading biographies of her). I did find it very humorous and well done that Ayn Rand selected a science fiction story "When the Cows Come Home" as the student winner. Also well weaved into the account was the main character's first impressions of "The Fountainhead" which he seems to gush over for a while until he realizes how unrealistic and substandard is that novel when compared to truly great literature. Ernest Hemingway only makes a brief tangential appearance, but his shadow looms over the plot.
The major flaws I found in reading "Old School" were twofold. First is the stylistic form of using no quotation marks. What is with that?
Here is an example:
Quoting page 154 (hardcover)
Without stories one would hardly know what world one was in. But I'm not saying this very well. Mr. Ramsey stared out over the garden. It has to do with self consciousness, he said. Though I'm no believer, I find it interesting that self consciousness is associated with the Fall. Nakedness and shame. Knowledge of ourselves as a thing apart, and bound to die. Exile. We speak of self consciousness as a burden or problem, and so it is- the problem being how to use it to bring ourselves out of exile. Whereas our tendency is to lose ourselves in the distance, wouldn't you say?
The squirrel approached within a foot of us and reared up, obviously expecting a handout. Someone had been sneaking him scraps, probably a younger boy, homesick, missing his dog.
That squirrel looks about ready to take us down, I said.
To me the style of not using quotation marks greatly hindered the flow of the story, and to me, that grammatical irregularities was a major flaw in "Old School."
The second flow that prevented me from giving "Old School" five stars was the last section of the book. There is a dramatic switch from the main character to a side character, Dean Makepeace. While that is all interesting, the way the novel ended was just sort of haphazard. I had really connected to the main character, but the last section pretty much abandons him and the focus is on "Arch" previously known as Dean Makepeace.
But overall, I do recommend "Old School" for the positives do outweigh the flaws. I believe you will enjoy reading this work by Tobias Wolf. It was my first time reading his work.
Thanks for reading my review.
While Wolff obviously has reverence for authors and literature, he also can't help but poke fun at the personas and characters of the authors featured in the book. Robert Frost is portrayed as a pseudo-intellectual; a case of the emperor having no clothes. Wolff raises the question of why "great literature" is considered great. Is it truly great or is it imbued with greatness by what the reader reads into it or assumes was the writer's intent?
Wolff's gift for arranging words is a true talent. Each word seems carefully chosen and gives the novel an old-fashioned feel. Wolff's writing is gorgeous.
While Old School is a novel about literature and writing, it is also a comentary on class, religion, and social acceptance. Wolff navigates the murky waters of social injustice, class consciousness and anti-semitism with grace.
There isn't a book lover alive who would not be enchanted with the idea of living in a place where literature is treated as a religion and writers as gods. There is one unforgettable scene where the headmaster is announcing to the boys that Hemingway will be visiting. In describing the scene, Wolff writes, "The headmaster watched us, enjoying the shock he'd produced. Then someone yelled Bravo! And the room went nuts - whistles, shouts, feet drumming the floor, fists pounding tables." In Old School writers are contemporary rock stars.
Most recent customer reviews
The writing is so good I was immediately drawn into the story and could not put it down
Each page had a provocative thought,...Read more