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Book Review: Old School by Tobias Wolff (4/5)

15 Nov

Here’s yet another example of a book club book I never would have picked up but because someone else picked it, I read it and enjoyed it. If you don’t have a group that pushes your reading, I really recommend it.

Cover image via Goodreads

Old School by Tobias Wolff

Summary from Goodreads:

The protagonist of Tobias Wolff’s shrewdly—and at times devastatingly—observed first novel is a boy at an elite prep school in 1960. He is an outsider who has learned to mimic the negligent manner of his more privileged classmates. Like many of them, he wants more than anything on earth to become a writer. But to do that he must first learn to tell the truth about himself.

The agency of revelation is the school literary contest, whose winner will be awarded an audience with the most legendary writer of his time. As the fever of competition infects the boy and his classmates, fraying alliances, exposing weaknesses, Old School explores the ensuing deceptions and betrayals with an unblinking eye and a bottomless store of empathy. The result is further evidence that Wolff is an authentic American master.

I was instantly reminded of a favorite of mine, A Separate Peace so I started off inclined to like this book. I liked the setting and the premise. I enjoyed how being a good writer made a boy popular the same way being a star athlete can. The idea that intellect was celebrated made me happy. I’m contemplating sending potential future children to a New England boarding school. I’ll bet this doesn’t last long.

I felt the protagonist was credible. I could understand how he wanted to prove himself and show that he could do well and didn’t need to be pitied as a scholarship recipient. I almost understood his decision to be untruthful. Almost. I wouldn’t have gone to such extremes, but I understood it. His procrastination bothered me, but I know people who would have done the same thing.

I liked the narrator. Most of the other boys seemed to run together but the narrator, because we were in his head, I understood and liked. He was smart and he had his priorities in the right places. Well, most of the time. With one major exception, he was a good student and stayed out of trouble. He admired the great writing and aspired to get through learning and school. That’s pretty admirable. He also learned some hard lessons along the way about people he idolized and I think that must have been very humbling.

I had flashbacks to the high school literary magazine when I was reading the scenes where the boys talked about their own. I remember certain people appearing more than others, letting someone’s piece in because they were a Senior and the sense of entitlement that came with being an editor. I felt these were hit spot on.

Tobias Wolff
Image via the Paris Review

I thought the scenes with Ayn Rand were pretty great. The way she was characterized and the take-aways the narrator had from the encounter were very realistic of meeting one’s heroes. I loved how Wolff characterized her (and really shared an opinion!). I’ve never read her books but I’m familiar with the movement she was a part of and how polarizing they could be.

Spoilers here so skip this if you don’t want the ending ruined. I didn’t like that the narrator plagiarized, but I disliked it more when he ran away to New York. It seemed like he was so afraid of returning home to a father we know little about. I didn’t understand why he didn’t feel he could face his father except that he didn’t want to disappoint him. It didn’t feel like strong enough motivation to run away. This character had been so level-headed leading up to this point and the change seemed too much and too sudden.

The narrator is always searching for greatness. At first, in others. He wants to see Ayn Rand as great and Hemingway. Then he wants to be great himself. He’s desperate for achievement and recognition. And it bites him hard. In the end, he humbles himself but is able to achieve something great (or so it’s implied). Greatness is never easy. It was good that the narrator had to struggle to see that.

Writer’s Takeaway: I struggled in my historical fiction book with bringing in real-life figures. I ultimately decided not to but I respect how Wolff did it in this book. Giving life to Frost, Rand, and Hemingway must have been a challenge. You want to be true to who they were but also treat them as a character. That balance is what led me away for it but I found this to be a good example of how to do it well.

A fun, quick read and a work showing a love of literature. Four out of Five stars.

Until next time, write on.

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