Old School by Tobias Wolff tells the story of an aspiring storyteller, a coming of age story in the tradition of works like A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce. Set between 1960 and 1961, the novel is narrated by an unnamed senior student at a fictional elite boarding school in New England. The narrator and his fellow senior students compete through submitting their own poetry and fiction to try to win an audience with established poets and writers—Wolff’s own interpretations of Robert Frost, Ayn Rand, and Ernest Hemingway. As the narrator competes with his peers, the many cracks in their relationships with each other and with their own self-presentations begin to reveal themselves. Although not exactly a novel of unpredictable twists and turns, the external and internal conflicts drawn out by the literary competition culminate in a believable climax with real consequences.
On the face of it, Old School is about what pushes people to write in the first place. I don’t mean the lofty ideals or visions of inspiration so many writers claim drive their work, but rather the real and unglamorous motivations. These motivations are not limited to the creation of art but apply to all human endeavor: the envy of one’s peers, the hunger for external validation, the protection of one’s fragile ego, all of which come to the fore in the literary competition between the narrator and his peers. To elaborate, the unnamed narrator is a scholarship student of Jewish heritage at what is essentially a Christian predominant elite school. This background adds a whole new dimension to the narrator’s psychology, and among his peers he’s hardly the only one with a past he wants to hide.
If there is one thing that Old School excels in, it is the raw depiction of the protagonist’s psychology and contrived self-presentation. I’m sure most of us relate to hiding behind a convenient facade at least some point in our lives, and Old School takes this concept to genuine depths in the narrator’s monologues. Much of the narrator’s depth comes from the persona he builds to conceal his socioeconomic status and cultural background from his peers. Ironically, he is an aspiring writer who has spent more time and effort authoring a facade for himself than authoring any prose or poetry. In the interest of not spoiling the novel, suffice it to say that the cloistered elite prep school setting belies the universal insight on the human condition that the narrator’s development offers. This is not even to mention the novel’s epilogue, which focalizes the perspective of another character we may have, along with the narrator, assumed at first to already be fully developed as a person when this simply isn’t the case.
Wolff is an author acclaimed for his short fiction and memoirs, but don’t let his reputation fool you. This novel pulls its weight alongside the literary giants of the 20th century, with its economy of form and structure evocative of the short stories that Wolff specializes in. Old School’s opening section was actually first published in The New Yorker as a short story. Even in its final form, the novel remains short fiction in a sense at just under two hundred pages. Despite this, the psychological depth and development of the narrator reflect the richness of a full-length novel. In my opinion, the opening section does not feel incongruous—it shines best in light of the rest of the novel, with the details of the narrator’s Jewish and middle class background that are introduced in the opening only coming to narrative fruition in the later parts of the novel.
Despite the inclusion of these three real life literary figures (one of whom Wolff himself would bristle to call “literary” if his depiction of them is any indication), they don’t function as points of focus in the novel but rather as mirrors to reflect the psychology of the narrator. The psychological component of this novel is expressed through its “telling over showing” exposition style. The novel’s subject matter deals with psychological ideas like projection and introjection that are better stated in writing than expressed through description. Description would run the risk of wasting too much space evoking vague emotions rather than stating clear thoughts. Therefore, it makes sense that much of the narrator’s psychology had to be explained in the narration instead of alluded to so as to not be lost on the reader.
That said, Wolff’s portrayal of the narrator can come across as overly preachy at times, as though you were reading a fable. The novel’s climax, as wonderfully developed as it is, suffers from this preachiness the most. In short, the narrator makes an obvious “mistake” that is still believable for someone in his position, but too much time is spent belaboring how much of a terrible mistake this is. The result is that it feels as though Wolfe felt the need to teach the reader obvious right from obvious wrong when he really didn’t.
However, much of this ‘preachiness’ is an inevitable symptom of the novel’s school setting and its focus on a young, impressionable character. The narrator has many life lessons to learn that may seem obvious to those of us who have already learned them. Although this does not excuse the ‘preachiness’ entirely, the epilogue’s new perspective frames it as an effect that is unique to the narrator’s perspective. But at its best, Old School revels in the complexity of its narrating character and its depiction of the raw desire for acceptance surging beneath the surface of all of us.
— Blake Morrison, Fall 2021 Staff
Tobias Wolff is the author of the novels The Barracks Thief and Old School, the memoirs This Boy’s Life and In Pharaoh’s Army, and the short story collections In the Garden of the North American Martyrs, Back in the World, and The Night in Question. His most recent collection of short stories, Our Story Begins, won The Story Prize for 2008. Other honors include the PEN/Malamud Award and the Rea Award—both for excellence in the short story—the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and the PEN/Faulkner Award. He has also been the editor of Best American Short Stories, The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories, and A Doctor’s Visit: The Short Stories of Anton Chekhov. His work appears regularly in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s, and other magazines and literary journals.
Old School can be purchased here.