Old School, by Tobias Wolff

I love literary novels. In fact, I don’t think it’d surprise y’all too much to learn that nowadays I mostly read literary novels (I’ve read five SF novels this year and thirty-two “literary” or “classic” novels). But I still have this instinctive aversion to all the backcover copy and blurbs and reviews that accompany most literary novels. Basically, every word that people use to describe lit novels is coded, in my mind, as “horrendously boring”.

To illustrate, let me take the first paragraph of the Amazon.com review of a novel that I just read and really enjoyed, Tobias Wolff’s Old School, and highlight the parts that make me think the novel is boring.

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.

Is there really a reader who heads something like “delicate hymn to a lost innocence of American life and art” and thinks, “Golly! That sure sounds like something I’d like to read?” To me, that sounds utterly tedious. In fact, here is what this the above paragraph translates to in my mind:

Tobias Wolff’s Old School is at once a celebration of literature and a very boring, slow-paced example of boomer nostalgia. Set in the same generic boarding school setting we’ve seen in dozens of other novels, this novel is yet another examination of that stultified, totally-square moment before the boomers rose up and changed everything forever (i.e. all the nauseating parts of Mad Men, with none of the pretty people)

And the thing is, my translation is completely wrong. This novel is not boomer self-congratulation at all. But something about the promotional copy just makes me hate it preemptively. This is true for almost every single lit novel. I always have to hold my nose, ignore my preconceptions about it, and just dive in and see what it’s like. In almost every case, the novel is better than the advertising makes it sound.

In this case, the novel isn’t really about any of that stuff at all! It’s basically a kunstlerroman*: a story of about a young person’s maturation as an artist. However, unlike most such novels, this one deals very plainly with the awkward, early stage of artistic aspiration that most people do their best to forget. It’s about a bunch of eighteen year olds who write very bad poetry and very bad stories (examples of both are bruited about for the reader’s pleasure and scorn). They also edit a very bad school literary magazine and are very, very self-important.

It’s just so delicious to see a portrayal of a youthful artist where the young man isn’t particularly sensitive or talented. Where, in fact, the young man is just as affected and self-important as we all were when we were that age. This is the portrait of the artist as a young poser.

In Old School most of the plot has to do with a series of literary competitions in which the students compete for a private audience with famous authors. The authors themselves read the entries submitted to the competition and select the winner, then discuss the winning work in the student paper. Robert Frost, Ayn Rand, and Hemingway make appearances in the novel as visiting writers. And in each case we see the students engaged in the agony of artistic creation, and then we see the final dreck that results. And we see the artists themselves, who are all somber, ridiculous figures. I particularly love the appearance of Ayn Rand, where she continually harangues the students to live heroic lives (she literally believes herself to be a Randian superhero).**

And then the final fourth of the novel takes place after the narrator leaves and looks back on his experience from the vantage-point of his successful career as a writer. Things that were mysterious are made clear to him. And he makes some kind of peace with his youthful pretensions.

The novel is just utterly perfect. It’s seemingly quite unstructured. The various parts almost stand by themselves, and I think they were actually written as stand-alone short stories, but everything fits together marvelously well.

Oh, and the writing style is exactly perfect for me. It’s very spare (the book is under 70,000 words) and doesn’t waste much time with description. There’s just something perfectly-ordered about the sentence. Everything fits together just right. From the very first page I was hooked and read through it in about two and a half hours.

Actually, I finished this book and then later in the evening, I started reading Tobias Wolff’s Vietnam war memoir In Pharoah’s Army, and then I finished that in the same day, too. In both books I loved the same thing, the spare writing style and the unflinching self-portraits.

*In college, I frequently used to play the drinking game King’s Cup. In this game, one of the minigames (I believe you play it after you draw a five) is to name a category. You go around the circle and each name something that’s in the category. The first person to draw a blank (or name something that’s already been said) has to drink. The two categories I always used to choose were “types of novels” and “types of cars”. For the former, “bildungsroman” and “kunstlerroman” were always my aces in the hole. For the latter, I always used communist and third-world car manufacturers, like Skoda, Trabant, Maruti, etc.

**It’s difficult to know how much of Old School is fictional and how much is real. It’s clearly billed as a novel, but Tobias Wolff actually does have many biographical similarities to its narrator and he actually did attend a boarding school that is very similar to the one described. So…I prefer to think that everything in the novel is true (especially the Ayn Rand sequence).

5 Comments on “Old School, by Tobias Wolff

  1. Your translation of baby boomer literary praise was so spot-on I choked on my beer.

    I liked Old School well enough, but I read it after This Boy’s Life and In Pharaoh’s Army, and ended up feeling like it was territory he’d already mined. My impression of Wolff now is that he’s a pure memoirist–and one of the best alive–but it doesn’t seem like there’s any fiction going on.

    T

      • So there’s no back-cover matter at all? Or it’s just a straight plot description? That’s what I like about SF books–the back is usually just a plot description…with maybe a little interpretation regarding characters and themes…but there’s no quality assessment, like, “This is a delicate exploration of blahdy” (although I guess some SF books do have blurbs…which I also dislike).

        Yes, I’ve been trying to force myself to pick up This Boy’s Life. I’m absolutely sure I’ll like it, but if there’s anything I have a knee-jerk prejudice against, it’s adults writing about children for the entertainment of other adults (I’m not even that crazy about YA and children’s fiction, which is adults writing about children for the entertainment of children). But something about adult fiction with child protagonists just really makes me feel itchy…it always seems so precious, somehow…Anyway, I’m sure TBL will be awesome, once I convince myself to read it.

        • This Boy’s Life is about as un-precious as it gets. I think there’s a sub-genre of unsentimental memoirs of childhood that’s been en vogue for a long time now. The Glass Castle might be another example. Sort of like white trash poverty porn.

          No back cover matter at all. I think the only bookstores it’ll get into are the little indies in neighborhoods where I know people, so there will be the ‘local author’ sticker or whatever. I just don’t have any faith that anything written on the back of the book will sell it.

          • Yeah, if there’s not gonna be any browsing then there’s not too much point. When I’m browsing in bookstores, though, I do look at the back covers of books.

            Yes, I guess what I think about when I think about adults writing about children is the “childhood in Brooklyn” memoir/novel, like Jonathan Lethem’s _Fortress of Solitude_.

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