BOOK:Old School

October 3, 2009 § 9 Comments

DSCN7189I was in love with this book by the second page.
Obviously this is not a true book review; one does not start with such a line.

I like stories set in the northeast, I enjoy authors like Wharton and Salinger, and stories of prep school life.
No reason. (I must say, I was disappointed in the book PREP by what’s her name. I fell for the packaging.)

Prep school stories so often center around an individual who is there but shouldn’t be for some reason, stuck in the “NOK” position. And then his/her story of how it goes, what’s it like living there.

And so it is with OLD SCHOOL. Our narrator doesn’t fit in, doesn’t drive a Jag,doesn’t have the fat-dollar comfy life to fall back on even if he somehow didn’t do well in his studies. Little matter, it seems, as our narrator conjures or rather, alludes to his home life and actually spins a cocoon around his background to throw others off the scent. The reader must go carefully, paying attention here, watching his pose.

But alas, the reader becomes more caught up in his observations and his actual love of  the school, the place, the smell, the colors, the rituals, the community. The narrator loves it all.

The story centers on our narrator and his fellow friends who are writers.  (this cinched the book for me!)  They are on the school paper, they are writing in class and ultimately, they are competing to be write the best essay/story each year because the winner is chosen by a “real” author who then visits the school and also has a private writing session with the essay/story winner.
In his first year, it is Robert Frost. (now you know the time frame for the book!)
The second year it is Ayn Rand.
Now, mind you, our narrator is competing (or should be) so we are cheering for him, of course.

And next the visiting author will be Ernest Hemingway. What boy was not going for the prize this time? Several of our narrator’s mates are after it, to win a writing session with Papa. We have come to know them by now. We measure them, along with the narrator, to guess at how they might be doing.
To better it, one of the professors apparently knows Hemingway. It is by this great good luck that the author was culled into judging.
The competition! the excitement! the prize!

And so our narrator will dig into writing. The thing is, watching him is like watching Victor Borga. You know he’s brilliant (or would be) if he would just stop fooling around and sit down and play the piano, or, in this case, write the winning piece.

Does our narrator triumph? I will tell that you that “dissembling” is rather a major theme throughout. Don’t look for it at every turn of the page. Just go floating along on that reader’s cloud with all your antennae out. 

Tobias Wolff ‘s word patterns and timing and sentences are just so darn good, polished-to-a-surprise in nearly each of them, that you will be swept up in the writing whether you give a damn for prep school places or perfect endings or not.

Oddly though, I would guess Wolff did not attend prep school at all. I belive this is a book that could be written by an “outsider.” It has those elements which we have all come to associate with private school, the attitudes we imagine, the focus, whether we attended one or not. But Wolff could pull it off anyway, because what is a a school or any place at all after all when you get right down to it but an association, a community of characters, of individuals in one place at one time?

His characters are rich full-blown portraits, with surprises and humor. Go. Read. Enjoy a “writer’s” story. Enjoy some excellent, honed writing.

FEELING BOOKISH? here is another book, not necessarily on the same topic…

For a fine review of THE SENATOR’S WIFE by Sue Miller, go visit Tales from the Reading Room.

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