Book Review: Old School by Tobias Wolff

Old School by Tobias Wolff 003

First line: “Robert Frost made his visit in November of 1960, just a week after the general election.”

Here is a wonderful book about writing and reading and authors.  It takes place at a prep school where a boy on scholarship tries to find his place in that wealthy atmosphere–and to find his own true self.

It isn’t the usual prep school book full of cruel jokes and such.  This was a school where the boys were devoted to writing–and eagerly competed in an annual writing contest where the winning entry would allow the boy exclusive access to the visiting author that year.

There’s an interesting passage where the open forum with Robert Frost illicits a question about Frost’s “formal” writing.  And whether it is still a useful way of writing in a modern world.  Frost’s answer is grounded and informs the questioner that because of the formality and form in his work, no other method would be true to his intent.  “I lost my nearest friend in the war. . .  I wrote a poem for him.  I still write poems for him.  Would you honor your own friend by putting words down anyhow, just as they come to you–with no thought for the sound they make, the meaning of their sound, the sound of their meaning?  Would that give a true account of the loss?”

The year that is featured in this book is the year that Ernest Hemingway was the author coming to visit.  Hemingway ranks about as high as a saint (or higher) in the boys’ minds.
And a good deal of Hemingway’s work is quoted–his precise writing.   (narrator):  “I liked it for its physical details.  You saw everything Nick did, in precise, almost fussy descriptions that most writers would’ve left out . . .how he drives the pegs of his tent until the rope loops are buried . . .exactly how much flour and water he uses to make his pancakes . . . that Nick observes them (details) so carefully–religiously is not too strong a word–because they keep him from falling apart.”

How do you write a story that Ernest Hemingway might choose?  Our narrator is stuck, can’t write.  Right up to the day before entries are due, he has written nothing to hand in.

But when he does start writing, Wolff has pretty good details of his own–“the office machine (typewriter) was a tinny portable that jumped a little everytime you struck a key . . . It took a long time.  The typewriter kept inching back . . .and I’d have to return the machine to the starting line  . . .”   You can feel that typewriter under your own hands, and
maybe the urgency to get the story down anyway.

This is not a long book.  If you enjoy reading and writing I think you’ll enjoy it as much as I did.

Tobias Wolff is best known for his short stories, but he has also written a few novels.  This Boy’s Life is another I’ve read and liked.

There is an interesting interview with Wolff on UTube with Larry Bridges.  He talks about his novel, Old School, and about his writing in general.  It’s good.

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