OLD SCHOOL is Tobias Wolff's first novel, and it's so good that it won't be his last. This acclaimed writer is best known for his short stories and memoirs like IN PHARAOH'S ARMY and THIS BOY'S LIFE, which was made into a movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro.
OLD SCHOOL is written in first person narrative style, and it takes place at a prestigious prep school in 1960. It follows the life of a young boy who is attending the elite boarding school on scholarship. The narrator tries to fit in with the other students, who all come from privileged backgrounds. He is also determined to keep anyone from knowing that he is part Jewish, a fact that he has only recently discovered. This outsider fits in by sharing one passion with most of the boys at the school --- writing.
To me that's the core of OLD SCHOOL --- the power and lure of good writing. Wolff lovingly details the passion these "book drunk boys" have for great writing --- be it poems, short stories, or novels. Every year three prominent writers of the day visit the school. The boys enter writing competitions and the student who has the best piece wins a private audience with noted authors such as Robert Frost, Ayn Rand, and Ernest Hemingway. Wolff is an extraordinary writer in that he's able to change his style and write like a young boy. He has sprinkled samples of their poems and stories throughout the novel, and you really believe these characters wrote them. This is no surprise because Wolff is a writing teacher at Stanford University, so reading all those student papers over the years must have helped him accomplish this feat.
These writing competitions bring out the best and worst from the students. The visiting authors are like rock stars to these students, and everyone wants to have that special one-on-one meeting with them. When Robert Frost visits the school, the narrator is entranced by everything the famous poet does --- even down to how he folds a napkin. The young narrator is so desperate to win and meet his favorite author Ernest Hemingway that he resorts to plagiarism. Wolff so deftly introduces this scenario that it seems the boy isn't even cheating at first.
Early in the novel, Robert Frost comments on writing: "A true piece of writing is a dangerous thing --- it can change your life." OLD SCHOOL is a true piece of writing. It is a treasure that I will recommend for years to come to everyone I know who loves to read. In 195 pages, Wolff packs in more story and characterization than those authors who write 500-page novels. Wolff gets rid of the padding and tells you all you need to know about each of the characters and their struggles. He also does it with an economy of words --- short sentences that contain all the words they need. All of Wolff's life experiences shine through in this novel. His mastery of short stories and memoirs helps make OLD SCHOOL readable and believable.
Reviewed by Sean Doorly on January 13, 2011