Saturday, November 15, 2008

"Old School" by Tobias Wolff

I bought this book a while ago. It must have been at a used book store because someone wrote on the inside in one part: a date for when Robert Frost died. "Born 1874 Age 87 1961". I picked it up off the shelf last night because I was drawn to it for some reason. My cat had practically knocked it off the shelf and it was lying askew, begging to be set upright. And it had been like that for days, but I chose to stand it upright last night, and instead, pulled it off the shelf and read the back cover:

"The protagonist of Tobias Wolff's shrewdly--and at times devastatingly--observed first novel is a boy at an elite prep school in 1960. He is an outsider who has learned to mimic the negligent manner of his more privileged classmates. Like many of them, he wants more than anything on earth to become a writer. But to do that he must first learn to tell the truth about himself.

The climax of his quest becomes intimately entangled with the school literary contest, whose winner will be awarded an audience with the most legendary writer of his time. As the fever of competition infects the boy and his classmates, fraying alliances, exposing weaknesses, Old School explores the ensuing deceptions and betrayals with an unblinking eye and a bottomless store of empathy. The result is further evidence that Wolff is an authentic American master."

I was drawn to the book because of its promise to be about a bunch of guys competing for literary greatness. Right now, I am in the midst of struggling against my own literary apathy, my feeling that I am unworthy to be at the grad school I'm attending, and the feeling of failure I have that I'll ever even finish my Master's thesis. Not to mention, it's November, which means that many people are struggling to finish NaNoWriMo. So, in some ways, it seemed the perfect book to read right now. I couldn't have been more wrong in many ways.

What I saw inside the book, is not a bunch of boys childishly competing for the right to sit with one literary great, but three: Robert Frost, Ayn Rand, and Ernest Hemingway. And what promised to be a book about many boys, turned out to be the story of one boy as he watched the others around him. He is on scholarship to a school which prides itself on being Ivy League: only the best of the best come there, and the best of the best is determined by name only. But mostly, it seemed like the boy was his own undoing. The rest of the boys didn't really seem to care about his name or his background, and if he was competing for anything amongst his friends, it was the right to be considered a good poet or novelist, nothing more. But instead of letting his own writing come from the heart, he wrote about things that weren't his. And he assumed his own literary greatness before ever setting a word to the page.

All-in-all, it was an interesting story and well-worth reading. I will decline to comment on the rest of the book in case anyone reading this blog also wants to read this book, but I'd be curious to know if anyone else has read it, and if they got the same feeling from the book as I did: that the boy was not as serious about becoming a writer as the back cover claimed him to be, and that really this was a novel about a specific person's thoughts and feelings, not about the whole school in general. In some ways, it reminded me of The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger more than anything else.

As an aside, it also made me want to reread The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, although I am not sure if this would be a mistake or not. Her characters are so depressingly angular in their feelings, motives, and lifestyles.

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