Write Type of People
By Tobias Wolff
Knopf, 208 pages, $22
solemn, slightly precocious, and perpetually self-eviscerating,
the unnamed narrator of Tobias Wolff’s first novel thirsts
for anointment in the American literati. But like recent bęte
noirs of American letters, a lust for unearned greatness leads
After two award-winning story collections and praised-through-the-roof
memoirs (This Boy’s Life, and In Pharaoh’s Army),
it’s hard to be lieve 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 readied for the boardroom,
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
their 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. Where many male coming-of-age
novels take their narrative sustenance from peer politics,
sexual conquests or the sporting life, Wolff’s is devoted
exclusively to how literature intoxicates young minds. This
is no Oprah’s Book Club chumminess, but a drunk-on-words bender
capable of stirring pathological delusions.
Wolff’s narrator obsessively assesses his station within the
small yet formidable circle of fellow aspirants who 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
A class outsider whose half-Jewishness causes him to live
within a constructed persona, Wolff’s schoolboy is more than
a little vulnerable. Couple this with prolonged gender segregation
and the resulting “feminization of competition” (the idea
that without women around, all repressed sexuality is channeled
into competition), and 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 of 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 debated as any rock
star, their verse quoted with the breezy familiarity any mallrat
might display in regurgitating a Slim Shady stanza. It’s a
wonderful evocation, especially as Wolff deftly avoids sentimentality
by delving into the dark side of the reader gone wild.
Where the candy-appled youths of Dead Poets Society
thirsted on poetry in a sappy, semi-subversive way, Wolff’s
narrator uses it as an identity crutch. Reading Rand’s The
Fountainhead four times straight, he not only adopts her
contempt for the weak, but also becomes so febrile from her
persona that he has to spend several weeks in the infirmary.
School is an outsider’s view of class known to those who’ve
long supped at the trough of privilege but have never dined
comfortably. Though we can see the narrator’s fall coming
for some time, when it finally occurs it is no less severe.
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, elitist and fraught with moral
ambiguity, but neither is it one the author wishes to condemn.
Early in the story, our narrator fancies writing as a form
of power. What he finds is that the pen may be mightier than
the sword, but it cuts both ways: hard and deep.