I was right – this book was great. Tobias Wolff has redeemed himself. Unfortunately, I’ve been having the hardest time writing this review, so now I’m going to be the one in the position of having to redeem myself with my next piece… 🙂
Old School feels like a memoir – a remembrance of a life that inspired any number of classic works of film and literature. There are tones of The Catcher in the Rye, Dead Poets Society, and The Emperor’s Clubin this book, but it reads as an original nonetheless. It’s the story of a boy at a boarding school during the Kennedy Administration, happily soaking up an atmosphere of intellectualism and creativity. It’s also a story about writing, and becoming a writer – and becoming a man, and figuring out integrity.
The nice thing about this (and I won’t go into too many details, lest I spoil the book for you) is that Wolff declines to follow the traditional coming-of-age story template. Yes, this is a story about morality – but instead of showing the main character learning about Right and Wrong, it shows the main character learning that there are shades of gray and degrees of Rightness and Wrongness. Old School is a nuanced, mature coming-of-age story, and one that I imagine a lot of smart people can relate to. (Ooo! Preposition-ended-sentence alert!)
It’s also a book about class, pretension, and conformity; inspiration, idealism, and the power of the written word.
Wolff casts real-life authors as cameos of themselves. Ayn Rand stops by and is the unwitting messenger of what appears to be Wolff’s scathing denouncement of her philosophy. Robert Frost waltzes through and receives kinder treatment. And then there’s the sketch of Hemingway, near the end of his life, a sick man drawn with honesty – and yet, a dose of compassion as well. Each is the center of a yearly writing competition, and we watch as the main character strives to win a coveted audience with the renowned authors.
I’m not sure what it is about this book that most appeals to me. I harbor a deep fascination for boarding schools, and I’m sure that’s a part of it. (I mean, yeah, Harry Potter is a terrific read – but my favorite character is, hands-down, Hogwarts. Just one more reason why I’m dreading Book 7.) Old School is designed to appeal to writers and people who like to think about writers and writing, so I guess that’s another element of its attraction. On top of these things, though, is the fact that it’s just a good read. It’s well-written, just the right length and depth for a weekend read (confession: I stayed up late and finished this book in one night), intelligent without being inaccessible, and multi-layered without losing clarity. Well done, Mr. Wolff.