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Old School Paperback – August 31, 2004
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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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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We hear the story of his sixth form or senior year from a literary perspective. We meet his roommate Bill White and learn of his Jewish heritage, only by chance and not mentioned at all by Bill. George Kellogg, the literary review editor is a friend and foe. A fellow writer and a winner of one esteemed writing contests. And then there are the two Jeff Purcells,two other adversarial foes, little Jeff and big Jeff, cousins to the core.
There was a tradition at the school where a famous writer was invited to the school to meet and greet, and one of the lucky boys had a private audience. To win this audience, the boys must write a story or a poem and the writer would get to choose which one he considered the best. Robert Frost and Ayn Rand were but two of these illustrious authors. One of the most interesting chapters in the book, is Ayn Rand's visit. The story teller got out of a sick bed (flu, runny nose, cough)to go to a private meeting with this author and some of the boys. The story teller was such a fan of "Fountainhead"- he had read it 4 times, and HAD to meet the author. He was disappointed and disgusted with Ayn Rand and her treatment of his friend and of the headmaster. He felt she was rude and obnoxious, and he becomes an avowed ex-fan of Ayn Rand.
Ernest Hemingway was the next famous author to come to the school, and the storyteller had to win the private audience with him. He did win this prize, and the last chapters of the book describe the entire episodes leading up to this event in full regalia. The writing of his story that won the "best" prize, and the aftermath is an enigma. The ending of the book was a disappointment to me, I wanted more- I wanted to know and understand the full implications of the story tellers mischief.
Tobias Wolff has written a page turner- buy the book, read it, and enjoy it. prisrob
Wolff's prose flows flawlessly and often with subtle, sly humor. The narrator's earnest assessment of his rivals is hilarious as he describes their work without understanding just how banal their adolescent efforts are. Wolff's literary channeling is the unabashed highlight: Frost's false humility and pretend awkwardness; Rand's self-absorbed and misinformed rant; Hemingway's heavily edited and largely incoherent interview. Rand's appearance is by far the most brilliant as her anarchist views twist and turn on themselves, staying the course but getting more and more ludicrous with every word. The novel's final chapter can be read as the narrator's literary tribute to the decorum and warmth of his former school.
The narrator's voice is likeable and sympathetic, but unfortunately this novel fails at one of its own goals: honesty. As the narrator mentally chides Rand for creating unbelievable, superficial characters instead of real "beleaguered" people, Wolff fails to get to the guts of his own characters. "Beleaguered" here is school boy stuff, and, while the narrator and his buddies grapple with real issues of integrity and diversity, the heart of their struggles are never fully confronted. It's almost as though the gloss of upper class privilege, even in a scholarship boy, prevents a good look inside. Despite this, OLD SCHOOL remains a very good novel from an exceptional writer.
This short novel is extremely accessible and a true delight for those who love literature. Its nostalgic tone serves it well, as the times are evoked as lovingly as the literary greats. OLD SCHOOL may be flawed, but it makes for an enjoyable, engrossing read.
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