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This Boy’s Writing Life 

Youth and literature in Tobias Wolff’s first novel

Thursday, Nov 27 2003
Illustration by Jeremy Traum

Youth, J.M. Coetzee’s first book after the Booker-winning Disgrace, was published in the U.K. as “a novel” even though it was self-evidently the sequel to Boyhood, his memoir of a provincial childhood in South Africa. You could be forgiven for thinking that something similar is going on in Tobias Wolff’s Old School. Billed as a novel — a very eagerly awaited one, what’s more — Old School exudes memoirness from every pore. Then, about halfway through, you realize that it’s turning, subtly and gradually, into the great novel it was always intended to be.

As in Wolff’s memoir of his time in Vietnam, In Pharaoh’s Army, each section of the new book is built around an incident or episode that is arranged into an aesthetically satisfying and self-contained shape. Chronologically it bridges some of the gap between that phase of Wolff’s early adult life and the boyhood recorded in This Boy’s Life. This is the period in the late 1950s when he has won a scholarship to a prestigious prep school on the East Coast. Wolff immerses us in this world with the unfailing fidelity of observation, gesture and phrase that one would expect. Such are the joys!

The school has a proud literary tradition, maintained each year by a competition in which the boys submit a piece of writing to be judged by an eminent writer who then visits the school. All the pupils benefit from this, but only the winner is granted a personal audience. The dramatic portraits of these visiting legends are considerable feats of anecdotal re-creation in their own right. One year it’s Robert Frost (snowy-haired, red-cheeked, homely as a favorite uncle and imposing as Mount Rushmore), the next it’s Ayn Rand (a sub-Nietzschean apostle of her own personality cult, instilling awe — swiftly followed by intense disillusion — in all who meet her). All this is as nothing, however, compared with the tremor that goes through the school when it’s announced that the next visitor will be none other than Ernest Hemingway.

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The narrator — who, like the school, is unnamed — is so besotted with Hemingway that he has taken to typing out stories like “The Killers” word for word as a form of literary apprenticeship. It’s as if Borges’ “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” has been relocated and re-imagined in strictly realist mode. Such is the narrator’s desperation to win an audience with Papa that he’s unable even to start writing a story of his own. The desire to become a writer effectively stops him from being one. As Fitzgerald put it in This Side of Paradise, “It was always the becoming he dreamed of, never the being.” At his wit’s end, crushed by the weight of his own literary yearning, he embarks on a simple and ultimately devastating subterfuge.

As was the case with Ian McEwan’s Atonement — which Old School resembles thematically — it is difficult to summarize much of the book’s story without sabotaging the experience of reading it. Suffice it to say that around this point one starts to realize that an apparently simple book, which has been engrossing and enjoyable from the first page, is assuming the shape of a complex masterpiece. It also begins to look like the culmination of everything that Wolff has written. In these circumstances the urge to cross-refer to the earlier books becomes irresistible.

Wolff first established a reputation as a writer of short stories. One of them, “Smokers,” from his first collection In the Garden of the North American Martyrs, is set in a school that closely resembles the one in this novel. The ban on smoking in both places is absolute (immediate expulsion, no exceptions) and, in both novel and story, the narrator narrowly escapes detection. In the story, moreover, the narrator helps out a classmate by inventing “a fictionally interesting person” as a way of fulfilling an assignment his friend is struggling with. In real life the young Wolff had by then already invented “a fictionally interesting person,” namely himself. This Boy’s Life explains how he only obtained his scholarship by systematic deceit: “I felt full of things that had to be said, full of stifled truth. That was what I thought I was writing — the truth. It was truth known only to me, but I believed in it more than I believed in the facts arraigned against it.” (While he is frank about the way he entered the school under false pretenses, he is elliptical about how he made his exit. “In my last year I was asked to leave,” he writes. “But that’s another story.” Is Old School a version of that story?)

Actually, Wolff was not the first to fess up to his early transgression. In The Duke of Deception (1979), his brother’s memoir of their father, Geoffrey Wolff tells how Toby gained admittance to the Hill School in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, “by forging letters of recommendation” and “a letter-perfect transcript on a stolen form.” According to Geoffrey, “Toby had my father’s facial gestures and facial tics, and certain maneuvers with his hands and voice that made him resemble our old man more than I did, as he still does.” Their father — who, Geoffrey informs us, despised This Side of Paradise but loved the line from it quoted earlier — was a serial fraudster who ended up in jail. The influence of the errant father and his gift for multifarious deceptions — or fictions — is felt in much of Tobias’ writing. “He appalled me and frightened me,” he confesses in Pharaoh’s Army, “because I saw in myself the same tendencies that had brought him to grief. I didn’t want to be like him. I wanted to be a man of honor.” The fates of several characters in Old School — including the narrator’s — come to hang on that single word, honor.

Readers familiar with these various records of Wolff’s life will notice a number of inconsistencies appearing between the world of the novel and that of the memoirs. We learn, to take a tiny example, that the narrator stopped going to confession after his mother died; in This Boy’s Life she meets him off the train when he eventually leaves school. It is difficult to separate the narrator of the novel from the Toby of record but, as the former realizes when he is reading Hemingway, “a certain confusion of author and character [is] intended.” This “deliberate blurring” is apparent again when, after leaving school and doing an assortment of odd jobs, the narrator “enlisted in the army and ended up in Vietnam.” Simultaneously emphasizing the similarity and generalizing beyond this particular instance, he adds, “If this looks like a certain kind of author’s bio, that’s no accident.”

The narrator of Old School goes on to become a successful writer who, on the evidence presented, is all but indistinguishable from its author. As the novel proceeds, the layers of fabrication and truth become more and more entwined and mutually dependent. That was exactly how Wolff senior, the prodigal father, lived his life; in this fictive rendering of the past, the father never once allows “that his son had anything to be pardoned for.” This line once again draws one back to the “official” record of the memoirs, specifically the letter quoted by Geoffrey in which he asks their father to “suppose for a moment, thinking back to your fictions, that you could will them to be true. Would this make you happy?”

Having come this far, the reader trusts Wolff as unreservedly as the fictive father does his son. One has faith in his command of the novel form even when, in the final section, he swerves sharply from his own path to tell the story of one of the teachers at the school (who, until this late stage, has barely been featured except at the level of hearsay). Like everything else in the book, this bold disruption of narrative expectations turns out to be assured, measured.

Earlier I mentioned Atonement; the closing pages of Old School represent one of the most moving demonstrations of authorial at-one-ment you are ever likely to encounter. There is just one line — and it is, needless to say, at the center of the fictive carpet — that one has to take issue with: “The life that produces writing can’t be written about.” Every line in the book — including that one! — proves it to be untrue: mere fiction, in fact.

OLD SCHOOL | By TOBIAS WOLFF | Knopf | 195 pages | $22 hardcover

  • Youth and literature in Tobias Wolff’s first novel

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