Every time I hear about a new Tobias Wolff book I have the same reaction. “Oh, Tobias Wolff,” I think to myself. “He gets a very good rap, but really he’s nothing special”. Then I receive a copy of said book (my Dad is a fan) and sit down to read it. Six hours later I notice that the house is dark and rather than wait for me to stop reading, Grizzlewick has learned how to drive, got a job and earned enough money to buy himself McDonalds for dinner.
‘Old School’ is no different. Semi-autobiographical (as much of Wolff’s work is), it relates the story of an exclusive boys’ school in the 1960s, and the competition between its senior English class to earn an audience with, among others, Ernest Hemingway. Following visits to the school by Robert Frost and Ayn Rand, the boys become feverish at the prospect of a meeting with Ernest Hemingway, a firm favourite and undisputed living national treasure.
Wolff, as anyone who has read ‘This Boy’s Life’ can attest, takes a curious attitude to his own life and that of his protagonists. He is unapologetic about his flaws and behaviour, viewing them with a detachment, but not egotism. His exploits, such as the forging of a report-card which earned him a place at the prestigious school, described in This Boy’s Life, are presented without apology, but also without bluster. It is clear that in his adult life, Wolff has had the introspection to understand that his actions were not exemplary, but acknowledges their contribution to the richness of his life.
This story is compelling not only for its tension and character, but also for its exposition of the craft of writing. The boys of the school are competitive, convinced of their own originality, and desperate to impress each other, their teachers, and visiting authors alike. I started reading it fascinated by the external intrigue, but I found I was compelled by another element – the presence of necessary lies and the diminution of uncomfortable truths. While this is a book about lies told and excuses made, the truth has a strange presence in this book – it’s not here to perform a liberating function, but rather something far more sinister. The truth, in this novel at least, does not have a liberating effect, it merely serves to frustrate.
With a frustrating realness of his characters, Wolff isn’t for everyone, but Old School is certainly worth pursuing if you’ve read and enjoyed other Wolff stories. If you’re new to Wolff, I suggest starting with ‘This Boy’s Life’, so long as it hasn’t been ruined for you as a VCE/HSC text.