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Culture » Arts & Entertainment

Head of the Class

Tobias Wolff turns to fiction but sticks with class conflict in Old School.



Sometimes solemn, slightly precocious and perpetually self-eviscerating, the unnamed narrator of Tobias Wolff’s first novel thirsts for anointment into the American literati. But like recent bete noirs of American letters, a lust for unearned greatness leads him astray.

After two award-winning story collections and praised-through-the-roof memoirs (This Boy’s Life and In Pharaoh’s Army), it’s hard to believe this is Tobias Wolff’s first novel. Those familiar with his heart-stomping nonfiction can’t help but ponder the line between fiction and autobiography as Old School is set firmly in Wolff country: adolescent identity formation on the shakier rungs of the class ladder.

The time is the early 1960s, the place, the kind of New England prep school where ruling-class boys are readied for the board room, the golf course and the Senate floor. It’s the sort of pedigreed institution capable of bringing visiting writers of the stature of Robert Frost, Ayn Rand and Ernest Hemingway to address their tweedy tyros.

In this lair of privilege resides Wolff’s narrator, a scholarship boy for whom literary achievement is tantamount to victory in his very own class struggle. Where many male coming-of-age novels take their narrative sustenance from peer politics, sexual conquests or the sporting life, Wolff’s is devoted exclusively to how literature intoxicates young minds. This is no Oprah’s Book Club chumminess, but a drunk-on-words bender capable of stirring pathological delusions.

Wolff’s narrator obsessively assesses his station within the small, yet formidable circle of fellow aspirants that constitue the school’s literary journal. Their world cup is an award bestowed by the visiting writer that includes one-on-one “audience” time. Of course it’s not merely the prize that’s so alluring, but the author’s imprimatur of potential greatness—the so-called anointment.

A class outsider whose half-Jewishness causes him to live within a constructed persona, Wolff’s schoolboy is more than a little vulnerable. Couple this with prolonged gender segregation and the resulting “feminization of competition” (the idea that without women around, all repressed sexuality is channeled into competition), and it’s easy to see the inevitability of a breakdown:

“For honors in sport, scholarship, music, and writing we cracked our heads together like mountain rams, and to make your mark as a writer was equal of proof of puissance to a brilliant season on the gridiron.”

Wolff gracefully captures a time and place when even the most graying of writers were as revered and debated as any rock star, their verse quoted with the breezy familiarity any mall-rat might regurgitate a Slim Shady stanza. It’s a wonderful evocation, especially as Wolff deftly avoids sentimentality by delving into the dark side of the reader gone wild. Where the candy-appled youths of Dead Poets Society thirsted on poetry in a sappy semi-subversive way, Wolff’s narrator uses it as an identity crutch. Reading Rand’s The Fountainhead four times straight, he not only adopts her contempt for the weak, but also becomes so febrile from her persona that he has to spend several weeks in the infirmary.

Old School is an outsider’s view of class known to those who’ve long supped at the trough of privilege, but have never dined comfortably. Though we can see the narrator’s fall coming for some time, when it finally occurs it is no less severe. Wolff’s voice is infused with a complex, disturbed recollection from one who knows his superiors better than they know themselves. Their world may be alienating, elitist and fraught with moral ambiguity, but neither is it one the author wishes to condemn.

Early in the story, our narrator fancies writing as a form of power, what he finds is that the pen may be mightier than the sword, but it cuts both ways—hard and deep.

OLD SCHOOL, by Tobias Wolff