Old School, by Tobias Wolff

Old School

With Old School I’ve now read almost everything Tobias Wolff has written, at least that has been published in book form.

His books include memoirs (This Boy’s Life, mostly about his adolescence spent with an abusive stepfather, and In Pharaoh’s Army, about his time in the military in Vietnam), two short novels, and multiple collections of short stories. Though only two of his books are memoirs, a good portion of his fiction strikes me as being borderline memoirs, i.e., based on his own experiences with some of the details and the names and such changed. I assume this is common with fiction writers—that they write what they know, which can mean that the material in their fiction overlaps significantly with their own life experiences—but my impression is that this is true of Wolff to a greater degree than of most writers.

For example, his characters, like him, disproportionately live in the Pacific Northwest or spent their formative years there. Many are or were in the army. Some are writers. Some are in academia.

Old School is set in one of those fancy shmancy East Coast private high school boarding schools in the early 1960s. Wolff himself—post-This Boy’s Life and pre-In Pharaoh’s Army—gained admittance to such a school during that time period, despite being something of a juvenile delinquent, or at least being a bit more of a fuck-knuckle than the average teenager. He ultimately attended, and got booted from, multiple such schools before entering the army and later becoming an accomplished writer.

One wonders, then, the degree to which Old School—which features a protagonist (never named, I believe) who, like Wolff, is from the Pacific Northwest, has a Jewish father so non-observant that his own son doesn’t even know he’s Jewish until he’s almost grown, and is a scholarship student of a lower socioeconomic class than the bulk of his schoolmates—is autobiographical.

Incidentally, I have really no life experience with such institutions—haven’t attended a school remotely like them, haven’t lived in the part of the country where they apparently proliferate, haven’t known well and conversed with anyone who attended such a school—so the minimal impressions I have of them come from literature, and maybe a little from movies and TV.

And those impressions—of the students mostly—are quite negative. I’m thinking, say, of Caulfield’s peers in The Catcher in the Rye. Even more unpleasant are the students in the tennis academy/boarding school of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.

I mostly didn’t get that creepy feeling, though, from this book. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it makes me wish I could attend such a school or send my kids to such a school, but it doesn’t sound like a nasty place only one or two levels up from a military school. The kids seem mostly OK, at least not worse than your typical teenagers, and the attachment and even love that some of the students, including the protagonist, and alumnae express for the school doesn’t come across as ludicrous, or as the delusions of kids brainwashed into a cult.

The action in Old School mostly relates to recurring literary contests that the school puts on. Multiple times each school year, some famous writer is invited to the school to give a talk, and to judge a student writing contest. The winning student gets to meet and have dinner with the writer.

The school is sufficiently famous and prestigious to recruit very big name writers for these affairs. This particular school year, the writers include Robert Frost, Ayn Rand, and Ernest Hemingway. The book includes an account of the visits of the first two of those three.

Was there something like this at one of the schools that Wolff attended in real life? He goes into an awful lot of detail about these folks, how they conducted themselves, what they said, etc., and given how negative some of it is (well, with Rand certainly, who is presented as just the kind of vicious, unpleasant, egotistical bitch you would think someone with her philosophy would be), if these aren’t accurate portrayals based on real events, they’re kind of libelous. Maybe not legally, since the bar is so high when it comes to what constitutes libel in the case of public figures, but at least in a more informal sense.

Anyway, the protagonist and his classmates take these contests very seriously. The competition is spirited, and there is much scuttlebutt amongst them about the winners and how deserving they were or were not.

Wolff is praised by critics, concerning this book and in general, for presenting himself in his memoirs, and presenting the stand-ins for him in his pseudo-memoir works of fiction, as seriously flawed. I’ve noticed that too, that he often doesn’t come across all that well in his books, though in another sense his having the honesty and guts not to spin things to make himself look better does indeed come across as a credit to him. Significantly, it’s not all humblebrag type stuff that he “confesses”; it includes the kind of petty bullshit that almost all of us engage in but would rather not acknowledge, sometimes even to ourselves.

The protagonist in Old School—who is presumably based on Wolff—turns out to be a cheater in the end. It’s kind of odd, though. It’s as if this creation of Wolff’s is simultaneously opting for laudable honesty where doing so takes considerable courage, and engaging in the kind of petty dishonesty and selfishness that Wolff and his characters so frequently do.

The protagonist has not so much actively kept secrets about himself and his background, as he has not been forthcoming about such matters and has passively allowed his classmates to assume he is one of them to a greater extent than he sees himself being. For example, no one knows that he—in some very loose, extended sense—is Jewish.

While going through writer’s block in trying to come up with something for the Hemingway contest, he stumbles upon an article from several years earlier published in a different school’s newspaper, by and about a girl “coming out of the closet” about her true self and about how she has struggled to hide those aspects of herself that make her more of an outsider than her peers realize. He recognizes it immediately as his story, in effect. Everything she describes about what she has tried to do to fit in, how she has had to convince people she is someone she is not, and how it has all felt, fits him to a T.

It feels almost like some supernatural occurrence, that he has been shown what he needs to reveal about himself and how he needs to reveal it. He rewrites her story, altering the names and a few details, and submits it to the contest as his own.

He gets caught, and passively accepts the consequences.

But does he refrain from putting up a defense because he is ashamed and realizes what he has done is unconscionable? I don’t know. I kind of get the impression that what’s really going through his mind is closer to: “I had to do what I did in the way I did it. That it was cheating is incidental. I don’t expect you to understand it, and so I’m not even going to attempt to explain it to you. It’s all too complicated, and I don’t know that I myself fully understand it.”

It’s almost like he was in a trance when he plagiarized, like he was under some compulsion caused by the way the story forced him to recognize that it was time to come clean about certain things. The dishonesty is there—how could he deny it?; the plagiarism couldn’t have been more blatant—but I think he sees it in another, more important, sense as a supremely honest, confessional act.

Perhaps in his eyes he deserves the punishment for having been unwilling for so many years to simply be himself, and for lying—mostly implicitly, by omission—to better fit in with his peers. The fact that it is being visited upon him instead for plagiarism may just strike him as karma in action.

Most of that is left unstated, hence my speculative wording, but I just don’t sense that he feels much guilt over the plagiarism. But, importantly, he also shows little or no tendency to deny or justify the plagiarism, indicating that to him the plagiarism is not the aspect of what he did that matters.

So insofar as the protagonist fits with Wolff’s tendency—concerning himself or the characters that represent him—to manifest a gutsy honesty by portraying himself warts and all, it’s not that he comes clean about his plagiarism. He doesn’t volunteer that information; he gets caught. Instead it’s in his admitting that, unlike the bulk of his entitled peers, he is from a dubious background that is certainly not as socioeconomically elite as theirs, and that he has a Jewish parent.

I wouldn’t put Old School at the top of Wolff’s work, but it held my interest throughout, and it gives one plenty of important moral, social, and psychological matters to think about.