Monday, October 11, 2010

A Tincture of the Truth: A book review of OLD SCHOOL by Tobias Wollf

Old School, a 2004 novel by Tobias Wolff is an American tale, set in the 1960’s in a boy’s college prep school that has a tradition and the ability to host distinguished authors such as Robert Frost, Ayn Rand, and Ernest Hemingway. The students who are aspiring writers get caught up in competitions to win a private audience with the renowned visitors. Or as the unnamed student who is the narrative voice says, “We contended for this honor…”

Tobias, who teaches English and creative writing at Stanford University has written well about writing, self-consciousness, identity, social distinctions, making mistakes and outliving them and accepting fault and flaw in life; it’s a story that believes one can learn about self, others and life from story.

“How did they command such deference, English teachers? Compared to the men who taught physics or biology, what did they really know of the world? It seemed to me, and not only to me, that they knew exactly what was most worth knowing. Unlike our math and science teachers, who modestly stuck to their subjects, they tended to be polymaths. Adept as they were at dissection, they would never leave a poem or novel strewn around in pieces like some butchered frog reeking of formaldehyde. They’d stitch it back together with history and psychology, philosophy, religion, and even on occasion, science. Without pandering to your presumed desire to identitfy with the hero of the story, they made you feel that what mattered to the writer had consequence for you too.”(Page 5)
After reading the novel I read a number of on-line reviews of Old School and was surprised it was not more universally well received. I noticed a bit of a pattern; people who said they didn’t like the book were hankering after more action and plot complexities. It’s a fast paced world for the young, and if there isn’t a kinky plot on one campus, there is some serpentine cruel and tragic tale brewing in some other university.

Large plot lines can show all manner of actions and consequences, but it’s important not to underestimate the loss we risk when we give what’s going on around us too much power, and when we long for social status and measure ourselves in external realms. I liked the interior quality of Tobias Wolff’s novel.

“Say you’ve just read Faulkner’s “Barn Burning.” Like the son in the story, you’ve sensed the faults in your father’s character. Thinking about them makes you uncomfortable; left alone, you’d probably close the book and move on to other thoughts. But instead you are taken in hand by a tall, brooding man with a distinguished limp who involves you and a roomful of other boys in the consideration of what it means to be a son. The loyalty that is your duty and your worth and your problem. The goodness of loyalty and its difficulties and snares, how loyalty might also become betrayal-of the self and the world outside the circle of blood.

You’ve never had this conversation before, not with anyone…” (Page 5)
Page 5 and the narrator is already confessing to us, already owning up to his own self doubt, emotional frailty and incomplete honesty. The character knows he is deficient and he tells his misdeeds in a matter of fact tone.

While the book is about a young man who becomes a writer, later, much later, the narrator tells us that the story he has told isn’t really about how he became a writer because:

“The life that produces writing can’t be written about. It is a life carried on without the knowledge even of the writer, below the mind’s business and noise, in deep unlit shafts where phantom messengers struggle toward us, killing one another along the way; and when a few survivors break through to our attention there are received as blandly as waiters bringing more coffee.
No true account can be given of how or why you became a writer, nor is there any moment of which you can say: this is when I became a writer. It all gets cobbled together later, more or less sincerely, and after the stories have been repeated they put on the badge of memory and block all other routes of exploration. There’s something to be said for this. It’s efficient, and may even provide a homeopathic tincture of the truth.” (Pages 156-157)

 The headmaster’s struggle is also a significant element in the story and it will help you to read Wolff if you know to pay attention to the character and his details early on.
“…had he learned nothing from all those years of teaching Hawthorne? Through story after story he’d led his boys to consider the folly of obsession with purity- it’s roots sunk deep in pride, flowering in condemnation and violence against others and oneself. For years Arch had traced this vision of the evil done through intolerance of the flawed and ambiguous, but he had not taken the lesson to heart. He had given up the good in his life because a fault ran through it.” (Page 193)
Well, I don’t want to spoil the book for you. If you come across Old School it is a good read and in some ways it's a bit of an antidote to the brass and bully news stories, such as the one I wrote about in a recent post, coming out of schools across the country of late.

1 comment:

GretchenJoanna said...

Wow...this sounds like a book I might like. The quotes you post make me want to read it so I can meet the narrator myself. Thank you for taking the time to share so much that piques my interest.