Book Club Reflection: Old School by Tobias Wolff

4 Dec

I was so excited to discuss Old School by Tobias Wolff with my book club. I was delighted to find many loved the book as much as I did!

Wolff would be just about the same age as the narrator in the time period given so we wondered how autobiographical this book might have been. One of our members commented that Tobias Wolff is a Jewish name so the main character might have been a reflection of Wolff. However, our biographical note included that Wolff has a sister named Mary Elizabeth. That’s not a very Jewish name at all. Wolff also moved to Washington state with his mother. The cover image of the copy we had was supplied by the author and consisted of boys in matching uniforms sitting at rows of tables with their heads bowed in prayer. Reading the legal notices also told us that many of the short stories in the novel were previously published in the New Yorker. We’re assuming this is Wolff’s work. It all points to a fairly autobiographical work.

It was strange that the protagonist didn’t have a name. One of our readers picked the name Arthur for him while reading and we used this for him while we discussed him. Arthur seemed to have some strange ideas about how someone became a great writer. He talked about wanting to be anointed by Frost when he visited as if a touch could transfer his greatness. He later copied Hemingway’s stories, word for word, as if he could learn how to write his own by copying these. He needed to live to have his own ideas on how to write. Later in life, we hear he is a great writer but we’re not sure how he learned to write. The process of becoming a great writer seems to also involve becoming yourself and being unique. There was a danger that Arthur walked in copying those he admired without trying to be original.

A few commented that the kids seemed very well read and mature for high school students. We understood that this book was written in hindsight, but he made his high school self very mature. Arthur talks about the strong literary community at his school but we only see a few people who are involved in it or who Arthur agrees are ‘good.’ It seemed a stretch that high school students would produce writing that was good enough that the likes of Frost, Rand, and Hemingway would want to read it. We find out later they only send a few, but it still seemed a bit odd.

Ayn Rand did not get a good representation in the book. We were surprised she agreed to come at all. She was quite radical, and the school seemed very conservative and traditional. I wouldn’t think she would agree to do something like speak at a private high school, but it did help make a strong point.

A lot of us felt the ending was out of place and that it could have been cut or shortened. It circled back to questions the boys asked Makepeace at the beginning about Hemingway but most of us forgot that had even happened. Focusing on such a different character made it seem like a separate story instead of the ending of a novel.

However, it shared similar themes to the rest of the book. We identified honesty, identity, and insecurities as major themes. Arthur and Makepeace must deal with not being honest about something and pretending it’s true. Arthur is searching for his identity as many teenagers do. He has a lot of insecurities about being Jewish and about being less well off than his peers. This book does an amazing job of telling his story and we all just loved it.

We’re taking December off and have our next meeting at the end of January. We’ve got a 900 pager to keep us busy until then.

You can follow me on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

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2 Responses to “Book Club Reflection: Old School by Tobias Wolff”

  1. jenchaos76 December 5, 2018 at 9:21 AM #

    I might have to read this book

    Like

    • Sam December 5, 2018 at 11:22 AM #

      It was really good and we all enjoyed it. I hope you can. Happy reading!

      Liked by 1 person

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