Review - Tobias Wolff's Old School,
195 pp. (New York: Knopf, 2003)
    Steve Street

The drama of this book is the inner one of a writer's earnest quest to express truth, and readers who've loved Wolff — writers, especially, who've wrestled with issues of the genuine in their own lives as well as on the page — will be gratified to recognize his voice and concerns here. Others might balk at the narrative's straying from convention, even from plausibility, sometimes, with the same kind of point-of-view leaps that can be parsed out of his classic short story "The Liar" (how can a little boy know what his mother prays for?). But Wolff's prose is so compelling, so clear, quiet, urgent, and candid; his concerns so vast and essential as to seem in paraphrase trite — What makes us who we are? What does it mean to tell the truth? — that regardless of the narrative, page by page, the book rewards.

The narrator, also familiar to those who've read Wolff, is a successful West-Coast writer looking back on his formative years as a scholarship student at an exclusive New England prep school. He explores his own passions and faults with neither hubris nor guilt, with instead an even-keeled amazement and somehow impersonal remove, as if he's lived his life mainly in order to record it for the rest of us. "This aspect of my ambition was obscure to me at the time," he writes, and, of the scandal that forms the book's climax,"Even with the proof in hand, I couldn't reconcile what I knew to be true with what I felt to be true."

The flip side of such intense considerations is an inordinate attention to even apparently insignificant details. The unnamed narrator of this novel, like the earnest young writer Charlie in "Our Story Begins," is "too watchful to be afraid, his eyes wide open, ready to call out in this shifting fog where at any moment anything might be revealed." In this boarding-school setting all there really is to fear is boredom, and at times here the personalities of adolescents are rendered with a fascination that the characters themselves donít seem to warrant. At times Mr. Wolff, like his narrator, seems almost to have succumbed to the very mystique he examines elsewhere under a bright, white laboratory light, addressing "the problem of class" and exclusivity that the closed prep-school world presented, with attendant problems of anti-Semitism in early 1960's America.

His overall assessment, however, is clear-eyed: "It was a good dream and we tried to live it out, even while knowing that we were actors in a play, and that outside the theater was a world we would have to reckon with when the curtain closed and the doors were flung open." The ideal education — specifically of a humanistic, literary education, and more specifically yet the value of fiction — are a source of escalating conflicts in this book and so important a theme as almost to constitute characters. In fact Robert Frost and Ayn Rand appear in what a movie might call cameos, the narrator considering their personae as well as their work along with references to the work of writers from de Maupassant to Allan Gingsberg and some close reading of Hawthorne's and Hemingway's, especially the "The Minister's Black Veil" and the Nick Adams stories, that could make a case for cross-shelving Old School under Criticism. But Wolff keeps his passions in check. Writing is "too frivolous," says a character called "an extraordinary person," a talented early writer who not only stopped but left school to take care of her cancer-stricken mother, then later went on to medical school. "It just cuts you off and makes you selfish and doesn't really do any good."

Wolff's narrator, shocked, doesn't have a good answer, but Old School does, not as a declaration but as line-by-line pleasure in joining minds with Wolff and the writers who've meant something to him."It was the nature of literature to behave like the fallen world it contemplated, this dusky ground where subterfuge reigns and certainty is folly," he writes of the suddenly developed minor character who ends the story, but that's not the way in which the contemplative Old School satisfies. Its only subterfuge is craft, and its only folly is a love of the written word.

Steve Street has taught writing and literature at over a dozen colleges and universities, usually part-time, as he's doing now, at three SUNY branches in western New York. His short fiction has appeared in The Missouri Review, Another Chicago Magazine, Exquisite Corpse, The Quarterly, and elsewhere; an essay is in William Heye's 9/11 anthology American Writers Respond. He is IPR's fiction co-editor.

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