Saturday, December 08, 2012

Old School, Tobias Wolff

Old SchoolOld School by Tobias Wolff
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

On Friday Big Jeff made it known that if his cousin got kicked out for cutting next afternoon's chapel, he was leaving with him. This was a curious and agreeable twist, Big Jeff spanieling after his cousin with tongue out, barking at phantoms as he followed him into martyrdom. It somehow put the whole thing in a farcical light, as Purcell must have understood, because he was furious.

The above passage comes late in Tobias Wolff's Old School. At this point the narrator and his other schoolmates are just weeks away from graduating their Exeter-like institution. Purcell has become that most insufferable of humans: an adolescent convert, in this case from an inherited, nominal Christianity to ardent atheist. Now he stands, alone, on principle. This being 1960, elite Protestant prep-schools require their students to attend daily chapel. Purcell is having none of it, and will soon be expelled for his insouciant variety of passive resistance. Alas for Purcell, “Big Jeff” has marched himself into a spotlight meant for one, and transformed a tragic drama of noble principle into a Laurel and Hardy comedy. Fraudulent motivations have been revealed — along with a great deal more.

It is a comic episode, one of many, elegantly framed by a writer who takes the comic imperative very seriously. The novel's school is quite the literary construct, a Hogwarts for young writers. The boys all compete for a private audience with the literary stars of the era (Frost! Rand!! Hemingway!!!). The fictions penned by these sprats are, in fact, masks crudely constructed to fit over their visages. Facade upon facade, painstakingly maintained to protect vulnerabilities — truths — from being revealed.

Wolff generates a beguiling self-awareness that is entirely unselfconscious — a precarious and breathtaking feat of balance. After all, this is a novel in which young writers concoct fiction upon fiction in a vainglorious effort to build themselves up into something they are not. Wolff's narrator, for instance, is attending the school on a scholarship, and in fact comes from a struggling household of modest means. He is understandably evasive about this with his schoolmates. He is also a Jew — a fact he is evasive about with himself.

Wolff's narrator's voice perfectly evokes the unfocused heat of youthful yearning, now regarded through a lens tempered by experiences that render a person either humiliated or humbled. Every character receives his comeuppance. Only the truest of them discover that their vulnerabilities are something not to reject, but embrace.

Earlier I made a comparison to Harry Potter. Had this been a novel of bold and inept measures, that is how it might have read. That so many readers regard Old School as a memoir is a testament to Wolff's fabulous powers of fictive persuasion. Perhaps there are a few “police court facts” thrown into the stew, but Wolff's compassionate exploration of life and truth is indeed novel, and finally an endearing and delightful work of fiction.

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Joel said...

A few months ago, back when Paul Ryan had put Ayn Rand back in the news, references to this book and its depiction of Ayn Rand starting popping up all over the web. I had never heard of it before, but I spent an afternoon trying to track down an online copy of that description (with no success). Was it pretty interesting? The impression I got from the Internet was that this book is largely autobiographical, and that the description of Ayn Rand was based on personal observation. True?

Darrell Reimer said...

I have no idea how closely any of this novel fits to the facts, either of Wolff's life and experiences, or to Rand's public character. While reading I wondered if the Rand portrayal didn't skirt caricature, but then Rand's personality was so large and (frequently) abrasive that subtleties of caricature can be difficult for any writer using her as a subject. If Wolff has issued any sort of, "Yeah, it happened pretty much the way I wrote it" statement, I'd like to see it.

Darrell Reimer said...

Some belated due diligence: Wolff does admit that elements from his past do indeed inform Old School. He apparently attended (and, in his final year, was turfed from) The Hill School, which had a literary competition something like what he describes in the novel. But he never met Rand or Hemingway (though in that interview a Rand scholar praises his portrait).