Old School, Tobias Wolff

I am going to say my worst thing first. Stand by for enthusiastic praise. Tobias Wolff is a short story writer, and in Old School, his first novel, you can tell. It is less like a novel, and more like a collection of short stories about the same characters on the same theme. Mostly this was fine, but the last two chapters felt weird and abrupt, in a way they wouldn’t have done if this were a collection of short stories. Only if it had been a collection of short stories, I’d probably never have read it. That would have been a shame.

Old School is set at an all-boys boarding school with literary connections. Three prominent writers come to the school each year, and the boys in their final year are encouraged to write poems or stories for these writers. Each writer picks the best poem/story, and the boy who wrote it is permitted a private meeting with that writer. Our unnamed protagonist has reached his final year, and he longs to be chosen by one of the authors: Robert Frost, Ayn Rand, and Ernest Hemingway.

This is a book about adolescence and creativity, imitation and influence. Wolff does a superb job of exploring the way teenagers try on different versions of themselves, test-driving personalities to see how they go over with the world. Our unnamed protagonist does unsympathetic things and thinks unsympathetic thoughts, but I didn’t lose sympathy for him. He is clearly searching, almost desperately, for people and ways of thinking to define himself with, or against; and without being terribly explicit about it, Wolff manages to convey that the unsympathetic personas he is trying on are, or could be, temporary.

What made the book wonderful for me was Wolff’s wicked sense of humor about the writers who visit over the course of the year. Robert Frost gets off the easiest, or perhaps I just felt that way because my opinion of him appears to dovetail so nicely with the authors. Hemingway comes off a little crazy, or maybe I just thought that because I think Hemingway was crazy. In any case, what Wolff is really poking fun at here is the way the boys fall under the influence of each of the writers:

Anyway, I myself was in debt to Hemingway – up to my ears. So was Bill. We even talked like Hemingway characters, though in travesty, as if to deny our discipleship: That is your bed, and it is a good bed, and you must make it and you must make it well. Or: Today is the day of the meatloaf. The meatloaf is swell. It is swell but when it is gone the not-having meatloaf will be tragic and the meatloaf man will not come anymore.

I laughed out loud at so many parts of this book. I wish I could just type out the first few chapters for you, because they’re so, so funny. When Wolff wants to make you cringe, or ache with sympathy, he’ll do it, but a lot of the time he just makes you (well, me) remember adolescence, and giggle. More:

I had been holed up most of the weekend trying to finish my poem for the competition. What I’d been working on was a hunter’s elegiac meditation over the body of an elk he’s killed after tracking it for days through the mountains. This wasn’t typical of my poems, abstract and void of narrative as they tended to be. It fell into the pattern of a group of my stories in which a young fellow named Sam evaded the civilizing demands of his socialite mother and logger-baron father by fleeing into the forests of the Pacific Northwest, where he did much hunting and fishing and laconic romancing with free-spirited women he met on the trail….

But this poem was giving me a headache. For one thing, how was the hunter, having trailed the elk so far into the woods, going to get it out? How big was an elk, anyway? Really big, I guessed — so after offering thanks to the spirit of the elk for giving him all that meat, the hunter was going to look ridiculous walking away with one lousy haunch over his shoulder. Maybe I should’ve made it a regular deer. But deer didn’t have the majesty of elk.

and (I’m stopping after this)

I was discovering the force of my will. To read The Fountainhead was to feel this caged power, straining like a dammed-up river to break loose and crush every impediment to its free running. I understood that nothing stood between me and my greatest desires — nothing between me and greatness itself — but the temptation to doubt my will and bow to counsels of moderation, expedience, and conventional morality, and shrink into the long, slow death of respectability.

Oh, Lord. Tobias Wolff is a funny man. I may even make an exception to my general rule of avoiding short stories like the plague, and investigate one of his volumes of short stories.

I wish I had read Ayn Rand. Not–and please don’t misunderstand me on this point–because I have any interest whatsoever in reading Ayn Rand, but because Tobias Wolff skewers Robert Frost and Ernest Hemingway so skewily, and I am sure his skewering of Ayn Rand was equally wicked, but it partly passed over my head, because I have never read Ayn Rand. The chapter on her was still very very funny, but part of me also felt sad for Ayn Rand for being so mercilessly mocked. Even though she probably deserves it! Which I would not know if she did or not because I have never read The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged.

(I just remembered one of my favorite lines from one of the best scenes in my all-time favorite play Angels in America. One of the characters has just had the crap kicked out of him by his significant other, and as he’s lying on the floor bleeding he croaks, “It was like a sex scene from an Ayn Rand novel, huh?”) (Holy crap, y’all, that scene in Angels in America is superb. If you haven’t seen the HBO miniseries of Angels in America, go forth and do so. You may report back to me afterward with appropriate expressions of delight.)

Oh, yeah, and Tobias Wolff inexplicably doesn’t use quotation marks. Why? Don’t ask me. I never understand this impulse to ignore quotation marks. If you’re not Celie from The Color Purple, you should use damn quotation marks.

Thanks to Frances and Emily for reviewing this book and making it sound so great I put a hold on it at the library that very day. I thoroughly enjoyed it! For other reviews, see here.

  • I know what you mean about Ayn Rand — after reading your review, I might flip through one of her books just so I can get what Wolff is saying. Old School sounds wonderful. I’ve also heard good things about This Boy’s Life, which might not seem like short stories since it’s autobiographical.

    • I like the title of the Martyrs one, which now I’ve forgotten it — it’s some very catchy title about the Garden of Martyrs. It made me want to pick it up.

  • I read Old School a few years ago. I agree that it kind of read like a bunch of short stories — I didn’t think about that at the time! I just felt like it didn’t hang together as a novel. I didn’t love the book, but I do agree that Wolff is a funny man πŸ™‚

    • Well, of course, I was reading it at a rather depressing time of day (rush hour, waiting for the bus), and I was not expecting it to be funny. I’m sure that its sudden funniness cheering me up made a difference to my overall view.

  • Mumsy

    Nobody has to work hard to tease Ayn Rand or Hemingway; they practically skewer themselves. I read both The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged and they did not cause me very much pain (the stories are reasonably exciting), but as long as you read her Wikipedia entry, you’ve got all the info you need. Great review! I may pick this up if I see it.

    • What happens in the stories? Won’t I be bothered by the characters’ nastiness?

  • Mumsy

    Haha, I just read the Wikipedia entry myself, and her explanation of her philosophy was so ridiculous I snorted up some orange juice.

    • What bit? Tell me what bit!

  • Old School sounds my kind of read as well. Thanks for the review.

    • I hope you like it! πŸ™‚

  • We read In the Garden of North American Martyrs earlier this year for Faith and Fiction Saturday round Table and I really liked some of the stories. I’ve thought about checking out this book…maybe I will!

    • Yes! In the Garden of North American Martyrs! (I was trying to remember the title a minute ago.) I think my library has that, so I might grab it when I stop by there tomorrow.

  • Eva

    I was forced to read Anthem & The Fountainhead in high school (and loathed them), so I want to read this just to see Ayn Rand skewered! lol

    • BOTH of them? My stars, what kind of sadistic high school literature teachers did you have? I would have whined my head off if I’d had to read one, let alone both.

  • I’ve never read anything by Wolff; I’ve heard of Old School but didn’t really know what it was about. It sounds fantastic!

    • I hadn’t ever heard of him before I saw two reviews of Old School in the same day. And I can never resist a boarding school book. πŸ˜€

  • This sounds like a hilarious read, and that meatloaf quote slayed me. I haven’t read anything by Wolff, but I have heard good things. I am going to add this one to my list, and having read at least one Ayn Rand book, I am looking forward to hearing what Wolff has to say about her.

    • Oh, and he says plenty. I kept thinking that the authors would have very little screen time, but I was so wrong. Wolff drags them out front and center, Ayn Rand more than any of them. It’s pretty funny.

  • Definitely added to my wishlist after all those wonderful quotes!

    And.. Angels in America, I have not read the play (it is a play right?) but I have seen the miniseries years ago. And I loved them. So beautifully done!

    • It is a play. The miniseries leaves out a few things, nothing terribly significant, and I love it so so so much. It’s one of my desert island movies. πŸ™‚

  • Good thing this is funny, or I would never forgive it for not using quotation marks.

    I find short story writers who become novelists tend to do the same thing–they’re connected short stories instead of a novel. Some grow out of it, some don’t.

    • I don’t completely forgive it. Quotation marks are so useful. There seemed no reason to leave them out of this, except to make the dialogue seem artificially significant. For a book that pokes such relentless fun at affectation, leaving out quotation marks is pretty affected.

  • I need to watch both parts of Angels in America again, because I didn’t remember that line. I feel lucky that I read Ayn Rand years ago so now I can get the jokes without having to suffer, reading her stuff as an adult.

    • Hahahaha, yeah, I think I missed my window of opportunity to like Ayn Rand in high school. I don’t think I could have read her with a straight face before reading Old School, but now I know I couldn’t.

  • Haha, I so know what you mean about reading Ayn Rand before. I’m pretty sure I missed out on lots of biting satire in Old School because I was too scared to pick up some Rand.

    Funny, I don’t even remember that Wolff ignored quotation marks. I’m usually very adamant when it comes to puntuation. This probably means I should reread the book πŸ™‚

    • πŸ˜€ Probably so.

      It’s not that I’m scared to pick up Ayn Rand, it’s more that I can’t be bothered. I know I won’t like the themes of the books, and they’re so massive and pretentious, and the world is so full of stuff I genuinely want to read, that I am postponing reading her books. Perhaps indefinitely.

  • Hahahaha that quote from the play about the Ayn Rand sex scene is absolutely hilarious. Her sex scenes are HORRIBLE, although they are far from the worst bits of the Fountainhead. Which I think I’d say is a terrible novel, but is still well worth reading.
    I love Hemingway but I can see that there is a lot not to love about him. I think he was a really objectionable man in just about every way you can think of, but I like his prose and I like his stories – however, that quote about it was hilariously funny and SO the way he writes, ha.
    Anyway, this sounds great. I must read it! For some reason I always get Tobias Wolff and Tom Wolfe confused, and I was thinking to myself that this sounds like the male and much better version of I Am Charlotte Simmons. But no.

    • What’s worth reading about it? That’s not a sarcastic question, I am really curious. What things about it made it valuable to you in spite of the things about it that were awful?

      Yeah, Hemingway, I am not crazy about his writing style. I also learned a lot of uncomplimentary things about him as a person, before I ever read anything by him, and I expect that put me off as well.

      Tobias Wolff is very different. And Thomas Wolfe is different again (that’s the one that throws me off.)

      • You’re right, I think Hemingway was not a nice guy. I love a Farewell to Arms, though, and the Old Man and the Sea.

        I personally found Ayn Rand to be worth reading because she has been so influential and I wanted to understand why. Her writing style is totally unique and the way she thinks is too. Also, she really does write to make an ideological / philosophical point (she calls it philosophy but I don’t think I would even agree with that term). I personally tend to enjoy books where a point is being made, even if it’s one I disagree with vehemently. It was a thought-provoking read, for sure, and a great book for discussion. I’d really expected it to be heavy-going and difficult to read, but although it was pretentious and long, actually it was a fairly gripping story, so I whizzed through it. The characters were bizarre and over-planned and not real people, but somehow in the weird context of the version of the world she had set it in, it all kind of came together. There was also something a little Mad Men about it which I liked.

        I think I will probably read Atlas Shrugged one day… but not until I’ve had like 3 Ayn Rand free years. Sometimes I am still baffled that someone who actually thinks that way really exists.

  • Amy

    Cormac McCarthy didn’t use quotation marks in The Road either and it drove me crazy! I’ve always meant to read one of Wolff’s books, I have several on my list, maybe I’ll give this one a go.

    • That is my big reason for not reading The Road! He didn’t use quotation marks and then he tried to justify it by making fun of quotation marks! (Yes, that is the reason. Not the cannibalism.)

  • I absolutely loved this when I read it. In fact, your review makes me want to reread it. He does skewer so beautifully skewerly.

    • I was loath to return it to the library because I kept wanting to reread some of the scenes. However, I decided against, because I want it to still be fresh for a reread someday.

  • I was sold as soon as you mentioned an all boys school. There is just something about boarding schools that draw me in. I think it’s because I never lived in a dorm of sorts (even in college) and I’m envious of that experience?

    • I am just the same. Boarding school books. I can’t get enough of them. I did live in a dorm, but it did not have that boarding-school-dorm feeling to it, I’m afraid.

  • Glad you enjoyed this! Rest assured, Rand ABSOLUTELY deserves her skewering at Wolff’s hands, and her chapter was the one I enjoyed the most. But the Hemingway chapters as well. I actually really liked the final chapters, since they take us outside the hermetic boarding-school environment and give us a different perspective on what was going on. But anyway, glad you liked it! πŸ™‚

    • I know! I know she does! Only ouch, he was really hard on her, and she’s not alive to defend herself, poor little sausage.

      I did like the part where he met with the Jewish girl who wrote that story. That was a really good scene, I thought.

      • Mumsy

        Don’t waste your sympathy on Ayn Rand. She was pretty horrible personally and plus, she would have flipped her s*** if she knew you were feeling sorry for her.

  • Simcha

    I’ve never read anything by Tobias Wolff but your review has definitely piqued my interest. This is very different from my usual reading but I might just give it a try if I can get if from the library.

  • This sounds wonderful! The only thing I’ve read by this author is This Boy’s Life. I would read this novel for the mockery of Ayn Rand alone. πŸ˜› And I especially loved your description of how Wolff explores adolescence.

  • I had no idea Tobias Wolff was funny. Seriously. For some reason I thought he wrote gritty stories about incest and abused children (I don’t know where I get these ideas from.) I definitely feel more inclined to give him a go now. And anyone who lampoons Hemingway is a friend of mine.

  • Ela

    Sounds a good read – my experience of boarding schools has all been in the English (British) tradition, so an American one (I assume) would be interesting to compare. Though most British boarding school stories were (and are) written for kids rather than adults.

    I read my way through ‘Atlas Shrugged’ and may get round to ‘The Fountainhead’ at some point. I found the book really interesting (though John Galt’s 60-page speech was bit much, frankly): her characters are often very driven and not particularly pleasant. Dagny Taggart’s not bad, forthright and ambitious, and devoted to her railways – until she falls in love, and then feels she has to be dominated. Yick.