An ingeniously nuanced, compact work, it describes a boy’s literary coming of age.
Now this one is for the boys. With a collection of memoirs and shorter fiction to his name, Tobias Wolff is an established name in American literary firmament. Old School is his first full-length novel. An ingeniously nuanced, compact work, it describes a boy’s literary coming of age, pondering the role of truth and honesty in fiction and touching on issues of privilege, ethnicity and family along the way.
It begins in 1960; JFK has just been elected President and our nameless narrator is one of several aspiring writers at a prestigious boys’ school. Once a term, students are invited to compete for a private audience with a starry author, and when the headmaster announces that Ernest Hemingway will be the next visitor, the ivied quads echo with the clatter of typewriters.
Old School captures perfectly the hushed and heady claustrophobia of this all-male institution, and scarcely the flutter of a skirt ruffles its pages. As a scholarship student, the narrator hides his past, his family and, most especially, his father’s newly discovered Jewishness by writing stories he hopes will be read by classmates as autobiographical. The competition deadline is looming and inspiration still nowhere to be found when he stumbles across a story that speaks directly to his experience. Unfortunately, it belongs to someone else.
The resulting drama has dire consequences for Wolff’s protagonist, but also proves the making of him as a writer. The second half of Old School takes place decades later, yet given the chance finally to make amends, he balks, admitting that: ‘The appetite for decisive endings, even the belief that they’re possible, makes me uneasy in life as in writing.’
The easy urbanity of Wolff’s own prose often cloaks phrases of gut-punching economy – the way a boy sits ‘pretzeled over’ in a chair, for instance, or the ‘blood-borne assurance’ of another. Elsewhere, it opens up, Tardis-like, as when he describes the narrator’s grandparents’ home, its floors covered with ‘thick white carpets that deadened the air and made whatever you said in that woollen silence sound like the sudden caw of a crow on a damp day’.
This is the kind of novel that endures – wise, clever and written with immense heart.