Sunday, January 17, 2010
Old School by Tobias Wolff
I found a copy of this book when we stayed in the Guest House of Davidson College (NC) over Thanksgiving break. "Required reading for 2009," a sticker on the cover proclaimed, and that was enough to convince me to grab the slim paperback and head back to the room. Also, it isn't a long book, and I was pretty sure I could finish it before our trek back south. The unnamed narrator attends a New England boarding school in the early 1960s; one of few Jewish boys amid a sea of WASPs, he works hard to disguise his background in order to fit in. Part of his assimilation plan is to win the school literary contest, judged each year by a famous author. According to the narrator, the winner of this contest attains ultimate Old Boy status; his own intelligence and valor would be unassailable should he succeed. Unfortunately, the boy fails at winning twice--Robert Frost chooses someone else's poem (deemed trite by the narrator), and his bout with flu precludes a writing submission when Ayn Rand is the judge. (He does meet Rand though, and his fever-laced description of her supercilious audience with the students is hilarious.) The third try at the contest is a hit, but only because the boy suffers a horrific case of writer's block and plagiarizes someone else's work. Submitting a short story from another school's literary magazine--a story about a Jewish teenage trying to fit into WASP society no less--the narrator suffers from little guilt because he feels he surely could have written this story. Indeed, as the weeks pass, he often thinks he is the real author--after all, the story sums up his deepest fears and dreams so well, the words are more his than the actual author's. A school master discover's the boy's deception, and what unfolds after that raises important questions about honesty and integrity, both literary and otherwise. This plot outline sounds deadly serious, but actually the tone and language of Old School is not heavy-handed at all. Indeed, Wolff manages to keep the reader chuckling about the foibles of youth and the often unworthy adoration we throw at icons. I loved this book--it reminds me of a droll Separate Peace or Catcher in the Rye.