Who wants to read yet another novel about a teenage boy of slender means, and Jewish at that, who feels awkward and out of place at a New England prep school? Then again, you know you're in the hands of a great writer if you think you've heard it all before only to recognize that you've never heard it told like this. "Old School," Tobias Wolff's first full-length novel, is the kind of book that, within its first few pages, startles you into realizing you know nothing: It sends you marching into fresh, untracked territory -- a rare and wonderful thing.
"Old School" is only partly about the trauma of not fitting in: Its real subject is the overwhelming power that the desire to be an artist can have over us -- much different from the trauma of actually being one, which is a whole different subject. The book's narrator -- we never learn his name -- is a student at a prestigious prep school, circa the early 1960s, one with a particularly fine reputation for literary pursuits. The school is able to attract visiting writers of high (or at least presumably high) caliber, like Robert Frost and Ayn Rand. Each of the boys has a chance to "win" a private audience with the vaunted guest by entering a contest, presumably to be judged by the honored visitor him- or herself.
The boys struggle to craft their poems and stories, and no one works harder than the narrator. Still, he stands by and sees the other boys win time after time: The winner of the Frost contest, for example, has submitted a poem with the shameless title "First Frost," whose significant feature is a milkmaid who tackles her job like this: "With swift hard strokes of her soft white hands/ She pulls the foaming cream into the pail between her legs." (It's revealed that Frost thinks the poem is a parody, a notion that crushes its earnest young author.)
The narrator ultimately deals with his desire to win in his own desperate way, but in between the nuts and bolts of the plot, Wolff explores the way young people who care about reading (and writing) flex the muscles that ultimately may, or may not, turn them into bright critical thinkers: The boys argue about literature, inflating their own sense of self-importance as they fall into and (in Rand's case, thankfully) out of love with the ideas of the writers they're reading. Wolff pokes fun at that self-importance, but he also understands, humanely, that you can't become an intelligent, astute reader and thinker without going through every single one of the embarrassing stages.
"Old School" is a delicately forceful book for its prose alone: It's pure pleasure to read. Look at the way the narrator explains, late in the book (after he's become somewhat disenchanted with his well-bred schoolmates), his decision to attend Columbia University: "Things that mattered at Princeton or Yale couldn't possibly withstand this battering of raw, unironic life. You didn't go to eating clubs at Columbia, you went to jazz clubs. You had a girlfriend -- no, a lover -- with psychiatric problems, and friends with foreign accents. You read newspapers on the subway and looked at tourists with a cool, anthropological gaze. You said crosstown express. You said the Village. You ate weird food. No other boy in my class would be going there."
I don't know quite how Wolff takes a perhaps too-familiar theme -- the search for individual authenticity -- and makes it seem like a notion that's never been explored before. Funny and moving and smart, "Old School" is a novel that has the intimacy and immediacy of a memoir. Even though it's a work of fiction, it's a true story down to its very bones.
-- Stephanie Zacharek