An Old School Read

Book Review
by Matt Benoit

This year’s Whatcom Reads! book, Tobias Wolff’s “Old School,” is a novel about many things. It is not just a novel about literature, famous authors, and writing, but also about truths and deception, seemingly harmless actions and their sometimes unintended consequences, and about not only the way people perceive us, but how we perceive ourselves.

The story’s narrator, who is never mentioned by name, is in his senior year at a boy’s prep school in New England in 1960-61. The school brings in several famous authors each year to speak, and with each visiting writer comes a writing contest. After all the submissions are reviewed, the visiting wordsmith picks one story or poem as the winner, with its lucky author receiving a private audience with the famous writer.

The appearances of Robert Frost and Ayn Rand bring a fair share of excitement to the school, but it is the announcement that Ernest Hemingway (whom the school’s dean, Arch Makepeace, is said to be a personal friend of) will visit in May that sends all the students into a frenzy of competition to be the winner of the literary contest.

I won’t tell you what happens from this point, but I will tell you that Wolff’s writing is flawless as always, and the characters and situations feel honest and real enough that it almost becomes easy to believe he actually encountered them. It was also easy for me to relate to various stages of the narrator’s struggles in coming of age—if one is of a similar mind I believe you’ll have no trouble putting yourself in his shoes at certain points.

Now, I am not the most literary type of person, especially when it comes to fiction. In fact, I must shamefully confess that, while I’ve read some Robert Frost poems, I’ve never read any books by Ernest Hemingway or Ayn Rand. But, I must say reading this novel really makes one want to become further acquainted with their work. So, although you might find “Old School” a bit slow to get going or to make a connection with, it slowly but surely will draw you in. It did for me, anyway.

The one thing I found to be a bit prickly in “Old School” was the fact that, much like Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road,” there are no quotation marks incasing dialogue. While I suppose it can help to engage the reader in some dialogue scenes by eliminating any excess characters or punctuation (“he said,” etc), it can also make one lose track of which character is saying what. I had to re-read a couple of conversations because it became confusing as to which character spoke which line.
Also, if you don’t care for reading books that are roughly the length of a presidential memoir, you’ll be happy to know that “Old School” is relatively short at 195 pages.

Overall, it is an intriguing story that slowly but surely sucks you in. It was a fantastic pick for Whatcom Reads!, and if you haven’t read it yet, there is no better time than the present.

-Editor’s note: Tobias Wolff will visit the Whatcom Community College campus on Monday, Feb. 8. He will speak in the Syre Student Center Auditorium from 7:30 to 9 p.m. The event is free and will be open to the general public.