Monday, August 13, 2007

Books: Old School, by Tobias Wolff

The title is the only thing about this book that fails to enthrall. Wolff writes in a direct and precise way as a first person narrator recalling his days as a scholarship student at an all boys (boarding) academy. The majority of his peers are WASPs (he remarks of one, wearing a tuxedo the night of a dance, that the boy made everything he wore look like tweed), and he keeps his own family (poor, Jewish, mother dead) a secret, studying carefully so that his sweaters and hair are properly rumpled with the carelessness usually attendant on wealth.

The academy is particular in that most of the boys, the narrator especially, are mad about writers and writing. Every semester, a famous writer comes to the school to give a talk and have a private one-hour audience with one boy, whom he or she chooses based on the students' submitted short stories or poems (depending on whether the author is a poet or a novelist). Over the duration of the novel, the narrator prepares for the visits of three writers: Robert Frost, Ayn Rand, and Ernest Hemingway.

What Wolff does so beautifully is convey the rising excitement and obsession that his narrator (like, I think, all young readers and writers) feels with the approach of each author, the nervous anxiety of writing his submissions for judgement, and the disillusionment that comes with the actual meeting. Frost, for example, chooses for his audience a boy who wrote a fawning, sycophantic piece that the poet interpreted as a sly and ironic jab. The boy is embarrassed that Frost has misinterpreted his piece, but goes to his audience nevertheless.

When Ayn Rand is announced to be the next visiting author, the news is met mostly by shock and derision (mind you, she does have a rather odd reputation). Nevertheless, there is fierce competition between the boys for an audience with her. The narrator picks up a copy of The Fountainhead in order, he says, to laugh at it, but then, he also says, forgetting entirely to laugh. He reads it to the end and begins it over, reading it again and again until he becomes suddenly feverish and, sent to the infirmary, misses the deadline to turn in his own story, which, in his imagination, had grown to great proportions, but of which he never actually writes one word. He regains his health in time to attend Rand's lecture, but he is so disgusted by her person (torn stockings and brash lipstick) and her personality (rude, crude, overbearing, vitriolic) that he notices for the first time how far from real her characters are, and, when he tries to read Atlas Shrugged, he can't get past the first fifty pages, with its same flat characters and same lengthy speeches, only longer. (Interestingly enough, I feel as though this is the quintessential progression felt by readers of Ayn Rand; although I've yet to get to Atlas Shrugged, I've heard similar opinions from many readers. Perhaps all this means, though, is that The Fountainhead is a better book than Atlas Shrugged.)

What the narrator deems missing in Rand's work is the truthful admission of human suffering, and Hemingway is the perfect antidote to that. Once again, the narrator's excitement and obsession leads to writer's block; this time he tries to overcome it by typing out copies of Hemingway's stories, a technique he imagines will accustom him to writing honestly painful sentences. He gets, though, too comfortable with this technique; the night before entries are due, he is in the office of the literary magazine he edits, reading through old copies of literary magazines from other schools. He finds a story entitled "Summer Dance" (almost as poorly titled as Old School!) and, identifying immediately with the low-income, sick parent, Jewish protagonist, masking her identity at a dance at the local country club, re-types the story, changing the protagonist from female to male, and adding his name on the byline. He keeps the title. A few days later, he is announced the winner, and, somehow unaware that he has committed plagiarism, looks forward to his meeting with Hemingway as he collects accolades from his peers and instructors. A few days before the big day, though, he is called into the headmaster's office and expelled; his fraud has been found out.

Rather than returning home and facing shame (his full scholarship to Columbia, of course, is revoked), he goes to New York and spends years on odd jobs, often in restaurants, writing, he alludes, all the while. The narration unravels a bit at this point as the novel comes to a close; we do find out a few small secrets about the headmaster, as well as the fact that Hemingway never did show up for his lecture and audience (pleading poor health; his godhood is dashed as well, and he is shown to be a sick and sad alcoholic, a pompous windbag, and no great prize of a man). There isn't any closure, per se, because the expulsion itself is the closure, and everything afterward is merely epilogue and would be, in the days of black and white movies, unnecessary.

Though never so lucky as to attend a boarding school in which famous authors visited regularly, and not so unlucky as to be poor and motherless, or so unlucky to be embarrassed about my Jewish heritage (there is less of a stigma, I think, these days, or perhaps only because I was schooled amongst Catholics rather than Protestants), and never so careless as to plagiarize, my identification with the narrator is intense. Perhaps only a writer reads with this intensity, or perhaps there is simply something endemic to obsessive readers, whether they write or not, but the crest of emotion, with its attending rise of elation and belly-drop of disappointment, both in the obsession and hero-worship of an author, and in the crafting of one's own work, is very real for me, and Wolff catalogs it in the realest of ways. I'm not at my most eloquent here, but that is precisely what Wolff shows us happens in the face of the work of the best writers; we are rendered wordless, desperate and scrambling to put something, anything, down.

No comments: