The New Canon
The New Canon focuses on
great works of fiction
published since 1985.  These
books represent the finest
literature of the current era,
and are gaining recognition as
the new classics of our time. In
this installment of
The New
, Ted Gioia reviews Old
 by Tobias Wolff.
The Best in Fiction Since 1985
Old School
by Tobias Wolff

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

When fictional characters mix with famous historical figures, the
result is often a
Forrest Gump-ish fog of implausibility spreading
over the tale.  In the world of E.L. Doctorow’s
Ragtime, Harry
Houdini’s car might break down in front of your house.   In Woody
Zelig, the nondescript protagonist is even more successful
than a White House gate-crasher, mixing not only with the
President, but also the Pope, Babe Ruth
and many of the leading figures of the
first half of the twentieth century.  Shucks,
I thought I had hit the big time when, as a
child, I briefly spoke with Moe Howard (of
the Three Stooges) at a restaurant in
Westwood!  At its worst, these types of
stories can appear exploitative, extracting
a larger-than-life quality from the dearly
departed that the narrative would not be
able to sustain without this parasitical
taste of fame.  

Tobias Wolff is thus clearly taking chances
when he forces several famous dead authors
to serve as characters in his novel
Old School.  
He runs other risks here too—he might find that his own authorial
voice cannot match the powerful spirits who inhabit this book, or
that his attempts to speak through their mouths sound forced or
unconvincing.  Tolstoy had it easy by comparison—it’s much
easier to write dialogue for Napoleon than to bring Ernest
Hemingway on to the stage of your story.  One expects so little
eloquence from a general or even an emperor….

The novel is set during the early 1960s on the campus of an
unnamed Northeast boarding school (possibly based on The Hill
School in Pennsylvania, which Wolff attended around this same
time—before his expulsion for failing math).  The institution
prides itself on its literary traditions—the headmaster had been a
classmate of Robert Frost’s at Amherst.  Dean Makepeace had
been buddies with Ernest Hemingway during the First World War,
and was even rumored to have inspired a character in
The Sun
Also Rises
.  But the most visible sign of the school’s support of arts
and letters is in its commitment to bringing famous writers to

The novel opens with the student body abuzz in anticipation of the
arrival of Robert Frost.  Even though the Kennedy-Nixon election
is taking a place a few days before the event, politics take a back
seat to the excitement generated by the poet’s visit.  Adding to the
intense atmosphere, a long-standing tradition at the school
provides the opportunity for a single student to have a private
audience with the famous guest writers who come to the school.  
The honor is awarded based on the student’s writing.  "We
contended for this honor by submitting a piece of our own work,"
notes the unnamed narrator, a senior (or "sixth former" in preppie
lingo) at the school, "poetry if the guest was a poet, fiction if a
novelist.  The writer chose the winner a week or so before
arriving.  The winner had his poem or story published in the
school newspaper and, later, a photograph of him walking the
headmaster’s garden with the visiting writer."

During the course of the novel, the school hosts Robert Frost, Ayn
Rand and also invites Ernest Hemingway—who never arrives, and
commits suicide that summer.   The introduction of the famous
historical figures is thus plausibly written into the plot, and is not
handled in the “coincidence piled upon coincidence” manner of
Forrest Gump school of storytelling.  But just as important, the
celebrated authors’ presence is not an adornment to the tale, but
triggers key developments in the plot.  
Old School, as it turns out,
is not about a young man’s coming of age, but rather deals with
what it means to create an original story, whether a fictional one
on paper or a non-fictional narrative in our accounts of our own
personal histories.  

Falsified stories may well be more important in the history of the
world than the honest accounts left behind by faithful scribes.  We
have words for describing these disreputable tales—lies,
plagiarism, propaganda, cover-up, and the like.  Yet Wolff
understands that the most dangerous falsehoods are those that
deceive the teller as well as the audience.   In
Old School, both the
unnamed narrator and one of the school administrators both learn
this lesson, at their own peril.

Tobias Wolff has a cranky tendency to change the focal point of
his tale at an unexpected juncture.  He is best known for his short
stories, which are daring in their willingness to change the scenery,
disrupt the chronology, and substitute new characters for old, all
at the drop of a hat.   In “Bullet in the Brain,” for example, he starts
out recounting the details of a bank robbery, and ends up in a
different time and place, with youngsters idly debating the merits
of various baseball players.  Another story opens with a man
defending his daughter from an attacking dog, and ends with a
murder case involving completely different people in a separate
locale.  Wolff applies the same techniques of disruption and
juxtaposition at the conclusion of
Old School, shifting the focus on
to a character who has only played a bit part until this juncture.  A
new story of loss and redemption emerges that casts a different
light on the proceeding account of student life.

For this reason, among others,
Old School is anything but old
school in its approach.  Whatever preconceptions you may have
about “high school” novels—which, let’s face, are mostly written
for high school readers—will probably be overturned before you
reach the final denouement here.  Along the way, Wolff makes the
most of his situations.  Heck, the scenes with Ayn Rand alone
justify the full list price.  Wolff may have made his name with
shorter fiction, but on the basis of this book, he also deserves
inclusion in any list of leading contemporary American novelists.  
The New Canon

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Irvine Welsh

Tobias Wolff:
Old School

Tim Winton:

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The Mambo Kings Play
Songs of Love

More to come

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