If you can muster the will to interest yourself, in this day and age, in the growing pains of straight, white ivy league college students, as told by an old white dude, there’s much reward to be reaped from Tobias Wolff’s short autobiographical novel. Written twenty years ago and recounting his time as an aspiring writer in a prestigious college in 1960s rural Pennsylvania, Old School has the feel of a classic.
For Toby and his fellow English majors, there is no sweeter prize than having one’s short story chosen by a visiting author, earning a private audience with the celebrity. The accolade is an implicit anointment which, more so than the act of writing, allows one to call oneself a writer. The book is structured around the successive visits of three authors – Robert Frost, Ayn Rand and Ernest Hemingway – and the literary warfare to gain their attention.
The narrator’s ambition is to be chosen - to belong - more so than to be read. Wolff excels at describing the unseen barriers that delineate the boundaries of power, between women and men, poor and rich, Jew and gentile. It’s also a novel of delusion and self-acceptance, charting the journey from “the dross of self-consciousness” to “the gold of self-knowledge”.
Old School works because its simple but precise prose belies craftsmanship and wisdom that never call attention to themselves. I found myself rereading a seemingly innocuous sentence only to discover a subtle provocation, an invitation to philosophical inquiry or a piece of social commentary no less sharp for being thinly veiled.
The book encouraged me to become a better reader. In fact, I think that might be its true subject: learning to read and to write as a metaphor for our quest to grow up and become good people. True coming-of-age in Old School happens not through experience itself, which can be arrived at with all manner of subterfuge, but through the rare act of learning from it how to be honest with oneself, and thus with the world.
This ingenious novel makes the most of its narrow focus to reach something profound, and like a great old-fashioned short story, grants itself license to make its point with an absolute killer of an ending.
Old School is published by Penguin Random House (Vintage Contemporaries)