A class of his own
Tobias Wolff's 'Old School' a story of scandal and redemption

By CASEY SEILER, Entertainment editor
First published: Sunday, November 9, 2003

All writers play roles on and off the page, but Tobias Wolff's case is a bit more nuanced. In his four story collections and two acclaimed memoirs, 1989's "This Boy's Life" and 1994's "In Pharaoh's Army," Wolff circles back around to the tug of war between authenticity and disguise.

In Wolff's new novel, "Old School" (Knopf; 195 pages; $22), the war rages behind the walls of a prestigious Eastern prep school. Set during the 1960-61 academic year, the story is told in first person by a scholarship student caught up with other "book-drunk boys" in the school's literary pursuits, which include visits to the rural academy by three iconic American writers: Robert Frost, Ayn Rand and Ernest Hemingway.

Like such canonical prep-school novels as John Knowles' "A Separate Peace," "Old School" turns on an act of moral transgression. The school -- which, like the narrator, goes unnamed -- invites the senior students to compete for an audience with each writer by submitting a piece of work; the increasingly fevered contests lead to scandal, but the book ends on a redemptive note that's both unexpected and graceful.

"Old School" re-creates what Wolff -- who visits the New York State Writers Institute on Monday -- refers to as a "vanished world" of privilege and literary striving. "This Boy's Life" gave a short sketch of Wolff's checkered career at Pennsylvania's Hill School: He faked his way in with a forged transcript and flunked out in his final year. (His subsequent stretch in Vietnam provided the material for "In Pharaoh's Army.")

But while the setting and spirit of "Old School" are informed by Wolff's school years -- and a photo from the Hill adorns the novel's jacket -- Wolff makes it plain that this is not a memoir.

"Robert Frost did come to my school when I was a boy," Wolff said in an interview last week from his home in northern California, where he teaches at Stanford University.

"I was sitting at the back and didn't hear anything he said. I didn't even hear the poems, although we had read them quite a bit before he came. But I never forgot it, nor the atmosphere of reverence that surrounded him."

But that scene was less important to this book than something else Wolff learned during his time at the Hill -- that he was an outsider.

"The whole ambition of being a writer," Wolff said, "was probably influenced greatly by my kind of crash course in the American class system, and my desire to find some way to escape the whole trap of class, which writing seemed to offer. Writers seemed to me to form a class of their own."

Wolff, whose four volumes of stories include "The Barracks Thief" and "The Night in Question," has no illusions that the society of writers is a utopia. "Old School" contains cutting portraits of the three visiting writers (although Hemingway remains a disembodied voice). The chance to conjure up these writers on the page was "one of my favorite parts of writing this book -- trying to become Ayn Rand for a while, trying to become Robert Frost and Ernest Hemingway."

He re-immersed himself in the work of all three -- although the immersion was more of a dip in the case of Rand's doorstop novels "The Fountainhead" and "Atlas Shrugged." "I read a little bit, but it's pretty bad," said Wolff, who calls the novelist-philosopher "an egomaniacal person to a degree that's almost impossible to conceive, but very smart."

In addition to the published work, Wolff pored over their letters.

"I could pick up their diction and their habits of thought, the way their mind turned in certain situations," he said. "I quote almost nothing directly from them; it's mostly my putting myself in their place and imagining what they would have said and how they would have said it.

"In the case of Frost and Ayn Rand, I've been happy to have people who saw them in action tell me I got them right." Like a lot of characters in Wolff's fiction -- and, significantly, his autobiographical works -- all three writers are aware of the role-playing they're enacting with their readers: Frost the avuncular farmer; Rand the capitalist high priestess; Hemingway the tragic ironist. They invent themselves.

"I have a great sympathy for people who do that, though I am also very aware of the sometimes toxic consequences," Wolff said.

Frost, Rand and Hemingway "were all extremely conscious of their public image, and cultivated and sculpted it, and tended it like a golf course. And they all ended up, all three of them, concocting rather fictional projections of themselves: They made characters, in a sense, of themselves. So I thought it was fair to meet them on those terms."

Wolff knows whereof he speaks: He has, after all, been played by Leonardo DiCaprio, the star of the 1993 film version of "This Boy's Life." He is also half of a remarkable literary brother act: Wolff's older sibling, Geoffrey Wolff, is an equally acclaimed novelist and biographer (his life of John O'Hara was published two months ago) who in 1986 wrote his own childhood memoir, "The Duke of Deception." That book chronicled life with the Wolffs' father, a high-living con man who spent his life hiding behind bogus identities.

"This Boy's Life," which followed Tobias Wolff's often rough life childhood his mother in the Northwest, can now be seen as something of a breakthrough for a new kind of memoir: the remarkable account of a seemingly unremarkable life. It's a genre that's produced such notable titles as Rick Bragg's "All Over But the Shoutin' " and Dave Eggers' "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius."

Wolff doesn't claim to be a trendsetter, but he's familiar with his book's reputation. "It's true that when I was writing ('This Boy's Life'), more than one person said, 'You know, no offense, Toby -- but why would anybody be interested in your life? You're not a celebrity. You have a certain readership, but you're not a very famous writer. Why would you be writing a memoir at your age?'

"And it was a good question," said Wolff, 58. "At the time, the memoir was pretty much in the hands of movie stars of a certain age, or statesmen. ... The man on the street certainly wasn't writing memoirs. And I think in that way it was pretty unusual; and the success of the book was a surprise even to my publisher, who didn't have very many copies in print. And I think it did open up a door that other people felt a bit more confident in walking through."

Casey Seiler is the Times Union's entertainment editor. He can be reached at 454-5619 or by e-mail at [email protected]

The opening paragraph of Tobias Wolff's novel "Old School":
Robert Frost made his visit in November of 1960, just a week after the general election. It tells you something about our school that the prospect of his arrival cooked up more interest than the contest between Nixon and Kennedy, which for most of us was no contest at all. Nixon was a straight arrow and a scold. If he'd been one of us we would have glued his shoes to the floor. Kennedy, though -- here was a warrior, an ironist, terse and unhysterical. He had his clothes under control. His wife was a fox. And he read and wrote books, one of which, "Why England Slept," was required reading in my honors history seminar. We recognized Kennedy; we could still see in him the boy who would have been a favorite here, roguish and literate, with that almost formal insouciance that both enacted and discounted the fact of his class.
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Tobias Wolff