Back in the ‘90s, I read Tobias Wolff’s memoirs of growing up in a struggling, single-parent family – This Boy’s Life (1989) – and of serving as a junior officer in the U.S. airborne division in Vietnam – In Pharoah’s Army: Memories of a Lost War (1994). I was impressed by both books, for the honesty and vulnerability of Wolff’s confessions, and for the grace of his prose style.
Recently someone presented me with a copy of Old School (2004) for my birthday. According to Tobias Wolff, it’s a novel, but it could fit quite easily into the gap between his two earlier memoirs. At the end of This Boy’s Life, the narrator wins a scholarship to a prep school, somewhat against the odds. Old School, set in 1961, tells the story of a final-year scholarship boy at just such an illustrious prep school, prior to his military service in Vietnam.
In the main, Old School is about the literary competition among the senior boys to win an audience with visiting writers: Robert Frost, Ayn Rand and finally Ernest Hemingway. If the spirit of competition for the first two is lively, the prospect of Hemingway’s visit causes something closer to hysteria. Hemingway is the boys’ hero, to the extent that they sometimes try to speak in his narrative style, thus enabling Wolff to draw a rare laugh from his audience:
“That is your bed, and it is a good bed, and you must make it and you must make it well. Today is the day of meatloaf. The meatloaf is swell. It is swell but when it is gone, the not-having meatloaf will be tragic and the meatloaf man will not come anymore.”
Tobias Wolff is a serious writer and generally doesn’t “do” comedy, so perhaps that’s why those lines stand out so much. Nevertheless, Old School is an insistently readable story with a wry sense of humour. For the visit of Robert Frost, one of the narrator’s friends wins an audience by trying to write a poem in the style of the visiting poet. However, the boy only succeeds because Frost interprets the poem as a satire and feels he has to show himself big enough to take a joke. Cue humiliation and jealousy in equal measures.
The climax of the book centres on the competition to meet Hemingway in private. Such is the narrator’s fixation with the prize that he can no longer think straight, let alone write anything. As the deadline for submissions nears, he stumbles upon a story from another school’s literary magazine, writes it out himself with changed names and places, and then hands it in as his own work. He’s so convinced of the emotional truth of the other writer’s story (a girl from a nearby girls’ academy), that he convinces himself that it’s his own. God love him, he gets thrown out of the school for breaking its honour code and loses his scholarship to Columbia University in the process.
Thereafter, the narrator’s life unravels into odd jobs and hard drinking before he eventually enlists in the U.S. Army and is sent to Vietnam. Home on leave, he manages to track down the woman who wrote the story – “Summer Dance” – that he plagiarized. His initial hope is that their meeting will tie up some loose ends in his life:
“It had the potential of making sense of the maze I’d wandered into when I chanced upon her story. Suppose we fell in love and ended up together. Then it would turn out to have been something more than bad luck that led me to Summer Dance, and all the confusions since would be revealed as cunning arabesques in a most intricate, beautifully formed story.”
This eventuality fails to come to pass, however, leaving the narrator with the utter randomness of life. Plagiarist and plagiarized are poles apart in their respective lives and will never meet again, but she – Susan – is delighted to hear that Hemingway confused a girl’s writing with a boy’s: “So much for the supreme arbiter of manhood.” She always hated Papa.
The other event which doesn’t happen, incidentally, is Hemingway’s visit to the prep school. He kills himself before his scheduled appearance.
For the record, Tobias Wolff was also expelled from his prep school, though whether this has any bearing on the events depicted in Old School, I cannot say. What I will say is that the story works on various levels: as a satire on the literary pretensions of young men and as a study of someone’s search for meaning through literature.