The protagonist of Tobias Wolff’s shrewdly—and at times devastatingly—observed first novel is a boy at an elite prep school in 1960. He is an outsider who has learned to mimic the negligent manner of his more privileged classmates. Like many of them, he wants more than anything on earth to become a writer. But to do that he must first learn to tell the truth about himself.
The agency of revelation is the school literary contest, whose winner will be awarded an audience with the most legendary writer of his time. As the fever of competition infects the boy and his classmates, fraying alliances, exposing weaknesses, Old School explores the ensuing deceptions and betrayals with an unblinking eye and a bottomless store of empathy. The result is further evidence that Wolff is an authentic American master.
About the Author
Tobias Wolff lives in Northern California and teaches at Stanford University. He has received the Rea Award for excellence in the short story, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and the PEN/Faulkner Award.
Date of Birth:June 19, 1945
Place of Birth:Birmingham, Alabama
Education:B.A., Oxford University, 1972; M.A., Stanford University, 1975
Read an Excerpt
Robert Frost made his visit in November of 1960, just a week after the general election. It tells you something about our school that the prospect of his arrival cooked up more interest than the contest between Nixon and Kennedy, which for most of us was no contest at all. Nixon was a straight arrow and a scold. If he’d been one of us we would have glued his shoes to the floor. Kennedy, though—here was a warrior, an ironist, terse and unhysterical. He had his clothes under control. His wife was a fox. And he read and wrote books, one of which, Why England Slept, was required reading in my honors history seminar. We recognized Kennedy; we could still see in him the boy who would have been a favorite here, roguish and literate, with that almost formal insouciance that both enacted and discounted the fact of his class.
But we wouldn’t have admitted that class played any part in our liking for Kennedy. Ours was not a snobbish school, or so it believed, and we made this as true as we could. Everyone did chores. Scholarship students could declare themselves or not, as they wished; the school itself gave no sign. It was understood that some of the boys might get a leg up from their famous names or great wealth, but if privilege immediately gave them a place, the rest of us liked to think it was a perilous place. You could never advance in it, you could only try not to lose it by talking too much about the debutante parties you went to or the Jaguar you earned by turning sixteen. And meanwhile, absent other distinctions, you were steadily giving ground to a system of honors that valued nothing you hadn’t done for yourself.
That was the idea, so deeply held it was never spoken; you breathed it in with the smell of floor wax and wool and boys living close together in overheated rooms. Never spoken, so never challenged. And the other part of the idea was that whatever you did do for yourself, the school would accept as proof of worth beyond any other consideration. The field was wide open. Like all schools, ours prized its jocks, and they gave good value, especially the wrestlers, who merrily wiped the mat with grim, grunting boys up and down the Eastern Seaboard. The school liked its wrestlers and football players but also its cutthroat debaters and brilliant scholars, its singers and chess champs, its cheerleaders and actors and musicians and wits, and, not least of all, its scribblers.
If the school had a snobbery it would confess to, this was its pride in being a literary place—quite aside from the glamorous writers who visited three times a year. The headmaster had studied with Robert Frost at Amherst and once published a collection of poetry, Sonnets Against the Storm, which it now pained him to be reminded of. Though listed in the library’s card catalogue, the book had vanished and the headmaster was rumored to have destroyed it. Perhaps with reason; but how many other heads of school had published even one poem, good or bad, let alone a whole volume? Dean Makepeace had been a friend of Hemingway’s during World War I and was said to have served as the model for Jake’s fishing buddy Bill in The Sun Also Rises. The other English masters carried themselves as if they too were intimates of Hemingway, and also of Shakespeare and Hawthorne and Donne. These men seemed to us a kind of chivalric order. Even boys without bookish hopes aped their careless style of dress and the ritual swordplay of their speech. And at the headmaster’s monthly teas I was struck by the way other masters floated at the fringe of their circle, as if warming themselves at a fire.
How did they command such deference—English teachers? Compared to the men who taught physics or biology, what did they really know of the world? It seemed to me, and not only to me, that they knew exactly what was most worth knowing. Unlike our math and science teachers, who modestly stuck to their subjects, they tended to be polymaths. Adept as they were at dissection, they would never leave a poem or a novel strewn about in pieces like some butchered frog reeking of formaldehyde. They’d stitch it back together with history and psychology, philosophy, religion, and even, on occasion, science. Without pandering to your presumed desire to identify with the hero of a story, they made you feel that what mattered to the writer had consequence for you, too.
Say you’ve just read Faulkner’s “Barn Burning.” Like the son in the story, you’ve sensed the faults in your father’s character. Thinking about them makes you uncomfortable; left alone, you’d probably close the book and move on to other thoughts. But instead you are taken in hand by a tall, brooding man with a distinguished limp who involves you and a roomful of other boys in the consideration of what it means to be a son. The loyalty that is your duty and your worth and your problem. The goodness of loyalty and its difficulties and snares, how loyalty might also become betrayal—of the self and the world outside the circle of blood.
You’ve never had this conversation before, not with anyone. And even as it’s happening you understand that just as your father’s troubles with the world—emotional frailty, self-doubt, incomplete honesty—will not lead him to set it on fire, your own loyalty will never be the stuff of tragedy. You will not turn bravely and painfully from your father as the boy in the story does, but forsake him without regret. And as you accept that separation, it seems to happen; your father’s sad, fleshy face grows vague, and you blink it away and look up to where your master leans against his desk, one hand in a coat pocket, the other rubbing his bum knee as he listens desolately to the clever bore behind you saying something about bird imagery.
There was a tradition at my school by which one boy was granted a private audience with each visiting writer. We contended for this honor by submitting a piece of our own work, 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.
By custom, only sixth formers, boys in their final year, were allowed to compete. That meant I had spent the last three years looking on helplessly as boy after boy was plucked from the crowd of suitors and invited to stroll between the headmaster’s prize roses in the blessed and blessing presence of literature itself, to speak of deep matters and receive counsel, and afterward be able to say, You liked By Love Possessed? You’re kidding. I mean, Jesus, you ought to hear Mary McCarthy on the subject of Cozzens . . .
It was hard to bear, especially when the winning manuscript came from the hand of someone you didn’t like, or, worse, from a boy who wasn’t even known to be a contender—though this had happened just once in my years of waiting in the wings, when an apparent Philistine named Hurst won an audience with Edmund Wilson for a series of satirical odes in Latin. But all the other winners came, predictably enough, from the same stockpond: boys who aced their English classes and submitted work to the school lit mag and hung around with other book-drunk boys.
The writers didn’t know us, so no one could accuse them of playing favorites, but that didn’t stop us from disputing their choices. How could Robert Penn Warren prefer Kit Morton’s plain dying-grandmother story to Lance Leavitt’s stream-of-consciousness monologue from the viewpoint of a condemned man smoking his last cigarette while pouring daringly profane contempt over the judgment of a world that punishes you for one measly murder while ignoring the murder of millions? It didn’t seem right that Lance, who defied the decorums of language and bourgeois morality, should have to look on while Robert Penn Warren walked the garden with a sentimentalist like Kit (whose story, through its vulgar nakedness of feeling, had moved me to secret tears).
I’m not exaggerating the importance to us of these trophy meetings. We cared. And I cared as much as anyone, because I not only read writers, I read about writers. I knew that Maupassant, whose stories I loved, had been taken up when young by Flaubert and Turgenev; Faulkner by Sherwood Anderson; Hemingway by Fitzgerald and Pound and Gertrude Stein. All these writers were welcomed by other writers. It seemed to follow that you needed such a welcome, yet before this could happen you somehow, anyhow, had to meet the writer who was to welcome you. My idea of how this worked wasn’t low or even practical. I never thought about making connections. My aspirations were mystical. I wanted to receive the laying on of hands that had written living stories and poems, hands that had touched the hands of other writers. I wanted to be anointed.
Frost’s visit was announced in early October. At first the news made me giddy, but that night I grew morose with the dread of defeat. I couldn’t sleep. Finally I got up and sat at my desk with two notebooks full of poetry I’d written when taking a break from stories. While my roommate muttered in his dreams I bent over the pages and read piece after piece like:
to the hopeless of the hopeless of the night
i sing my song and hopeless end my song
and do not pity me for i am without hope and
do not pity them for they are without hope and
There the poem ended. Beneath it I had written fragment. I’d written fragment beneath most of the poems in the notebooks, and this description was in every case accurate. Each of them had been composed in some fever of ardor or philosophy that deserted me before I could bring it to the point of significance. The few poems that I had finished seemed, in the hard circle of light thrown by the gooseneck lamp, even more disappointing. The beauty of a fragment is that it still supports the hope of brilliant completeness. I thought of stitching several of them together into a sequence, a la “The Waste Land,” but that they would thereby become meaningful seemed too much to hope for.
I would have to write something new. The deadline for submission was three weeks away. I could write a poem in that time, but what kind of poem should I write? Aside from being good, it would have to stand out from those of my competitors. But at least I knew—barring some dark horse like Hurst—who my competitors were.
There were three.
George Kellogg was the editor of our literary review, Troubadour. The review was very old and still appeared in its original format, on stiff heavy pages, in an engraved typeface that made every poem and story look like a time-worn classic. I had wanted the editorship myself and lost it by a single vote of the outgoing board, which left me with a dreary consolation title: director of publication. This was a disappointment, but not a blow. George had earned the position, tirelessly soliciting manuscripts from other boys, burning the midnight oil to put the latest number to bed before deadline. I did none of those things. Troubadour was the only gallery I had for my work; it never occurred to me to recruit rivals.
The very fact that George had earned the editorship made it appear less enviable. I wasn’t after an A in Citizenship. Not that George couldn’t write. He was a well-schooled, proficient writer, mainly of poetry. He always wrote in traditional forms, the villanelle in particular, and his subject was loneliness: an old man picking his way across a fairground the morning after the fair; a child waiting outside a Greyhound station for a ride that doesn’t come; a darkened theater after everyone has left save one old woman slowly gathering her things, dreading the long walk home to her empty room.
She dons her scarf, she dons her balding fur;
She takes her time, ’til Time at last takes her.
You could tell, reading George’s poetry, that he knew his stuff. His lines scanned, he used alliteration and personification. Metonymy. His poems always had a theme and were full of sympathy for the little people of the world. They bored me stiff but George had expertise and gave occasional intimations of power in reserve.
I didn’t really believe he would win. He seemed more professor than writer, with his watch chain and hairy tweed cap and slow, well-considered speech. The effect was less stuffy than dear, and that was George’s problem; he was too dear, too kind. I never heard him say a hard word about anyone, and it visibly grieved him when the rest of us made sport of our schoolmates, especially those with hopes of being published in Troubadour. At our editorial meetings he argued for almost every submis- sion, even knowing that we could take only a fraction of them. It was maddening. You couldn’t tell whether he actually liked a piece or just hated turning people down. This provoked the rest of us to an even greater ferocity of judgment than we were naturally inclined to.
George’s benevolence did not serve his writing well. For all its fluent sympathy, it was toothless. I had some magazine pictures of Ernest Hemingway tacked above my desk. In one he was baring his choppers at the camera in a way that left no doubt of his capacity for rending and tearing, which seemed plainly connected to his strength as a writer.
Still, I knew better than to write George off. If he just once let a strong feeling get the better of his manners, he might land a good one. He could win.
So could Bill White, my roommate. Bill had already written most of a novel, the first chapter of which we’d published in Troubadour. Two men and a woman are isolated in a hunting lodge during a blizzard. The narrator does not explain who they are, how they got there, or why they’re together. But as you read on, you begin to get the picture: one of the men is a famous actor, the woman is his wife, and the second man is a surgeon. The men are old friends, but it emerges that the actor’s wife is having an affair with the surgeon, who, it turns out, had once saved the actor’s life with an impromptu tracheotomy during a safari.
Have to take my hat off to you, said Montague. Tricky bit of tradecraft, given the circumstances. Storm blowing the damned tent down, and the beaters into the liquor. I shan’t forget it.
Not at all, not at all, said Dr. Coates. The merest intern could have done as well—probably better.
I shan’t forget it, Montague repeated. I’m forever in your debt, he added coldly.
Aren’t we all, said Ashley, pouring herself another scotch. She stared at the falling snow. Whatever would we do without the good doctor’s services?
You bitch, said Montague. You perfectly beautiful bitch.
Though Bill hadn’t let me read the rest of his novel—he was letting it settle before the final polish—I doubted that the hunting party’s meticulously described rifles would stay locked in their cases for long.
Bill’s people weren’t only genteel, they were gentile. So, I assumed, was Bill. He had bright green eyes and pale skin that flushed easily in heat or cold. His manner was courtly, amused, and for some reason he seemed especially amused by me, which I liked and also didn’t like. He played varsity squash. It had never occurred to me that he might be Jewish until his father came to visit, the spring of the previous year. Mr. White was a widower and lived in Peru, where he owned a textile company. He had Bill invite me for dinner at the village inn, and seeing the two together produced a certain shock: both of them tall and fair and green-eyed, Mr. White an older version of his son in every respect save the Brooklyn in his voice and an almost eager warmth. He referred often to their family, and it soon became obvious that they were Jewish. I had roomed with Bill for two years by then and he’d never given me the slightest hint. Though I practiced some serious dissembling of my own, I’d never suspected it of Bill. I thought of him as honest, if aloof. Who was he, really? All that time together, and it turned out I didn’t know him any better than he knew me.
Mr. White gave us a good feed that night. He was a friendly, comfortable man, but I was still trying to catch up and I’m sure I looked at him with more than polite curiosity. If Bill noticed, he didn’t let on and afterward gave no sign of feeling compromised by my knowledge that he was not who he seemed to be. That made me wonder if maybe he’d never meant to seem not Jewish—if my surprise was simply the effect of my own narrowness and anxiety.
I didn’t really believe that, of course. I believed that Bill had meant to deceive, and that his aplomb in the face of discovery was not innocence but a further artifice by which he masked his disquiet and, intentionally or not, forced me to probe my own response. Why not? That’s how I would’ve carried it off. We never talked about any of this, naturally. For a while I worried that Bill might hold what I knew against me, but he didn’t seem to. Maybe he was relieved to have someone know. That I could understand, very well.
When the time came to choose roommates for our final year we didn’t even bother to discuss it. Of course we would room together. Nobody got along better, even if real friendship eluded us.
Bill was a contender. His characters were stilted but he had confidence and his stories were eventful and closely detailed. Most of the work in Troubadour suffered from generality. The more general, the more universal—that seemed to be the guiding principle. Bill’s talent was particularity. How the snow creaked underfoot on a very cold clear day, or what the low white sun looked like through a tangle of black branches. The tackiness of a just-oiled rifle stock, the tearing sound of a bored woman brushing out her long hair in front of a fire. Everything in his work was particular and true except the people. That hurt the longer pieces, but in Bill’s shortest, most implicit stories, and in his occasional poems, the exactitude and poise of his writing could carry you away. He had me worried.
So did Jeff Purcell, known as Little Jeff because we had another Jeff Purcell in our class, his cousin—Big Jeff. In fact Little Jeff wasn’t little and Big Jeff wasn’t big, just bigger than Little Jeff, who resented Big Jeff, partly no doubt for inadvertently imposing this odious nickname on him. Little Jeff was a friend of mine, so like his other friends I called him Purcell.
Purcell habitually kept his arms folded across his chest like a Civil War general in a daguerrotype. This bellicose pose suited him. Under his bristling crew cut he cultivated a sulfurous gift for invective and contempt. He was the Herod of our editorial sessions, poised to strike down every innocent who presumed to offer us a manuscript. He had exacting standards: moral, political, aesthetic. Purcell even flouted the timeless protocol of pretending to admire the work of his fellow editors. At one of our meetings he declared that a story of mine called “Suicide Note” read as if it’d been written after the narrator blew his brains out.
Purcell came from a rich, social family, but you wouldn’t have guessed it from his stories and poems; or maybe you would. His subject was the injustice of relations between high and low. He had written a ballad about a miner being sent deep into the earth to perish in a cave-in while the mine owner hand-feeds filet mignon to his hunting dogs, cooing to them in baby talk; and his last Troubadour piece was an epistolary story in which a general writes congratulatory letters to various grieving women after getting their husbands and sons slaughtered.
You may rejoice for your fallen hero, knowing that his heart was perforated for our glorious cause, and you and your little ones can rest assured that his missing head, wherever it may be, is filled with the pride of sacrifice and radiant memories of the homeland for which he died so eagerly.
This story was, I felt sure, inspired by a certain passage in A Farewell to Arms, but when it came up for consideration I bit my tongue and let it go. It wasn’t bad. Cartoonish, of course, like all of Purcell’s work, lurid and overwrought, to be sure, but venomously alive. Anyway, I myself was in debt to Hemingway—up to my ears. So was Bill. We even talked like Hemingway characters, though in travesty, as if to deny our discipleship: That is your bed, and it is a good bed, and you must make it and you must make it well. Or: Today is the day of meatloaf. The meatloaf is swell. It is swell but when it is gone the not-having meatloaf will be tragic and the meatloaf man will not come anymore.
All of us owed someone, Hemingway or cummings or Kerouac—or all of them, and more. We wouldn’t have admitted to it but the knowledge was surely there, because imitation was the only charge we never brought against the submissions we mocked so cruelly. There was no profit in it. Once crystallized, consciousness of influence would have doomed the collective and necessary fantasy that our work was purely our own. Even Purcell kept mum on that subject.
He was a threat. His attack was broad, even crude, but you could feel his discomfort with the cushion he’d been born on, and his fear that it would turn him into one of the fatuous bloodsuckers he wrote about. If he humanized his targets, muted his voice, used a knife instead of a cudgel . . . Yet he didn’t necessarily have to do any of that. In a field of stiffs, one of his cartoons could win for simply being alive.
These, then, were the boys who stood between me and Robert Frost. Of course there were other self-confessed writers in my form, but I’d read their English papers and Troubadour submissions and seen nothing to worry me except their desire. So much desire! Why did so many of us want to be writers? It seemed unreasonable. But there were reasons.
The atmosphere of our school crackled with sexual static. We had the occasional dance with Miss Cobb’s Academy and a few other girls’ schools, but these brief affairs only cranked up the charge; and though from day to day we saw the master’s wives, Roberta Ramsey alone had the goods to enter our dreams. The absence of an actual girl to compete for meant that every other prize became feminized. For honors in sport, scholarship, music, and writing we cracked our heads together like mountain rams, and to make your mark as a writer was equal as proof of puissance to a brilliant season on the gridiron.
This aspect of my ambition was obscure to me at the time. But there was another that I did recognize, though vaguely, and almost in spite of myself: the problem of class.
Our school was proud of its hierarchy of character and deeds. It believed this system was superior to the one at work outside, and that it would wean us from habits of undue pride and deference. This was a good dream and we tried to live it out, even while knowing that we were actors in a play, and that outside the theater was a world we would have to reckon with when the curtain closed and the doors were flung open.
Class was a fact. Not just the clothes a boy wore, but how he wore them. How he spent his summers. The sports he knew how to play. His way of turning cold at the mention of money, or at the spectacle of ambition too nakedly revealed. You felt it as a depth of ease in certain boys, their innate, affable assurance that they would not have to struggle for a place in the world, that it had already been reserved for them; a depth of ease or, in the case of Purcell and a few others, a sullen antipathy toward the padding that hemmed them in and muffled the edges of life. Yet even in the act of kicking against it they were defined by it, and protected by it, and to some extent unconscious of it. Purcell himself had a collection of first editions you’d almost have to own a mine to pay for.
These things I understood instinctively. I never gave them voice, not even within the privacy of my thoughts, precisely because the school’s self-conception was itself unspoken and thus inarguable. From my first days there I grasped and gratefully entered the dream but at the same time behaved as if I knew better, as in the following instance.
The summer before entering the school I’d worked as a dishwasher in the kitchen crew at a YMCA camp outside Seattle. I was the youngest, and the other guys rode me pretty hard until Hartmut, the chef, saw what was going on and headed them off. He did this obliquely, never defending me directly but bearing down on the hardest kidders by giving them the shit work, the grease trap or the fryolator. Eventually some subliminal sense of cause and effect must have taken hold, because they eased up and then we all got along fine. After dinner, when the kitchen was polished to his satisfaction, Hartmut let us play Tom Lehrer albums on his old portable. Though he didn’t get the jokes, he enjoyed our hilarity. Ah! You boys! You crazy crazy boys!
Hartmut was from Austria. He’d been in the States for many years but his English was eccentric and often ludicrous. He wore an actual chef’s hat and a white uniform that he changed every day. He cooked for those hot-dog-loving kids as if they were royalty—soufflés, pastries of airy lightness, quiches, many-layered tortes. He had great pride and didn’t allow himself to notice when the little pagans made gagging noises over their eggs Benedict.
Pink and thick and strong, Hartmut ran his kitchen like a ship, everything in its place, all orders to be obeyed on the instant. Though he appeared not to have a family, his love for children was obvious and utterly benevolent. He also loved music. When the record player wasn’t blasting out waltzes and light opera, he whistled and sang. Some of his melodies were catchy and stuck in my head. And that’s what landed me in trouble.
I’d been at the school for five or six weeks, no more. I was struggling in my classes but every morning I felt a rush of joy to wake to the bells ringing in the clock tower and go to my win- dow and think, My God! I’m really here! In my pleasure I was whistling a tune of Hartmut’s as I climbed the dormitory stairs after breakfast. Gershon, one of the school handymen, was a few steps ahead of me, carrying a laundry bag on his narrow shoulders. He had a plodding gait even on the level; here on the stairs he barely moved at all. I was afraid I’d bump into him if I tried to pass, so I kept pace a few steps behind, whistling all the while. Gershon gave off a stale smell that I’d whiffed before but never so strongly as in this tight passage.
He slowed even more. I hung back obligingly and continued to whistle, my song resounding pleasantly in the stone stairwell. Then Gershon stopped and turned. He looked down at me with his long face turned gray, the laundry bag slumped on his shoulders like a lamb in a Bible illustration. I could hear him breathe, fast and shallow. He said something in what I thought was another language—I knew he was a foreigner of some kind. His too-white teeth clicked as he talked; I watched them with helpless fascination. Then he stopped. He appeared to be waiting for an answer.
Name! he said. Vat your name!
I told him.
Go den! Go! Go!
I nudged past him and went to my room, and by the time classes started I’d written it off as a misunderstanding: the old crab must’ve thought I’d been trying to hurry him. When a prefect called me out of Latin during second period and sent me to the dean’s office, I assumed it was to receive a lecture about my abysmal grades. I was on scholarship, and had been nervously fearing a summons.
I hadn’t met Dean Makepeace yet but I knew who he was: he was Ernest Hemingway’s friend. He closed the door behind me and looked me over without a word of greeting, then motioned me toward the hot seat. He let himself down in the chair behind the desk and began to leaf through a file. Mine, I supposed.
He reeked of tobacco. Most of the masters did. It usually seemed a pleasant, paternal smell, though in my worried state I was nearly sickened by it. Before now I had seen Dean Makepeace only from a distance, at his table in the dining hall or tapping his way across campus, often conducted by an escort of older boys. With his height and his nose and his long black cane he’d appeared regal but benign. At this range he seemed neither. Dense dark hairs bristled from his ears and nostrils. Cigarette smoke had tinged his white moustache with yellow, and his suit jacket was smudged with ash. I had the impression that he wasn’t actually reading the file, just occupying himself with it while he decided how to carve me up, or maybe to give me time to feel the full weight of my laziness and ingratitude and the complete disappointment of everyone with hopes for me.
My chair had a high ladder-back that held me bolt upright. Shelves of dark, uniformly bound books rose up on either side, floor to high ceiling. Much as I loved books, there was something unfriendly about these; when I came across Meredith’s poem “Lucifer in Starlight” later that year and read the line The army of unalterable law, I thought not of the stars but of those loom- ing tomes. Behind his desk the leaded window was open to the breeze. I heard a burst of laughter from one of the classrooms on the quad. It stopped suddenly.
Dean Makepeace laid the file on the desk. Explain yourself, he said.
Well, sir, I was pretty far behind when I got here.
Not to make excuses. I know I need to work harder.
Don’t change the subject. Do you have any idea what that man has been through?
You heard me. I am unable to understand how anyone could behave like this to a man in Gershon’s position. Please explain.
Dean Makepeace said all this calmly enough, but I wilted under his gaze. He wasn’t angry. Anger, which I knew to be transient and generally at least part theater, I was used to and could easily bear. What I saw was dislike, which can’t be shrugged off, which abides.
I didn’t mean to hurry Gershon, I said. I’m sorry if he got that impression.
Oh, was that it? He wasn’t moving fast enough, so you thought you’d give him a little marching music. Why don’t you strike up the band for me?
I want you to sing me what you sang to Gershon.
Well, I was whistling a song. I don’t know the words.
Whistle away, then.
My mouth was so dry I couldn’t get a note out. I made a few false starts and gave up.
Come on. Let’s have it.
You were doing okay this morning, weren’t you? All right—hum the damned thing.
I did. It sounded different, hummed, but I could tell Dean Makepeace recognized it and that this wasn’t helping matters. I stopped and said, Sir, what is this song?
Don’t play dumb with me, boy.
I’m not! I’m not playing dumb. What did I do wrong? The self-pity of this question brought me close to tears.
You say you don’t know what this song is?
I shook my head furiously.
Where did you learn it, then?
A man I worked with. Hartmut. I picked it up from him. The tune.
You must know other songs.
Many other songs. Yet of all the songs you know, you just happened to whistle this one to Gershon. To Gershon, of all people!
I wasn’t whistling to him. I was just whistling. And Gershon was there.
Was there some occasion for this outbreak of melody?
Nothing special. I was feeling happy, that’s all.
Dean Makepeace leaned back in his chair. Happy. What were you happy about?
He stroked his moustache. You’ll want to be somewhat discreet about that, he said. Honestly, boy, what have you heard about Gershon?
Nothing. I see him around, that’s all.
So you don’t know anything about him?
Have you ever heard of the “Horst Wessel Song”?
You mean the Christmas carol?
No, no. The “Horst Wessel Song” is a Nazi marching song, and a very ugly piece of work it is, too. That’s what you were singing. Whistling.
Then it all came home. As a child of the superior, disgusted, victorious nation I had the usual store of images to go with the words Nazi and Jew, and I was putting Gershon’s face to them even before Dean Makepeace began to tell me what had befallen Gershon and his family, of whom none had survived but a daughter who was now in a French mental hospital. As he spoke I felt my eyes tearing up, partly from pity and also because the sadness of the story gave me cover to mourn my own plight, unjustly accused and humiliated by a great man of the school only a few weeks into my first term—a man I’d hoped to study with one day, who might even befriend me.
It was too much. I started to weep—to blubber. My lack of control mortified me and I turned in my chair, hunched away from him. I tried to stop but couldn’t. I felt a hand on my back. Dean Makepeace kept it there for a moment, then gave my shoulder a squeeze and left the room.
By the time he came back I had exhausted myself. He offered me a glass of water and waited beside my chair. The water was cold. I drank most of it in a gulp, then finished it off and handed Dean Makepeace the glass. Though he didn’t say anything, I understood that our meeting was over. I got up and told him I was sorry about Gershon, that I’d had no idea . . .
I know. I know you didn’t.
But how did he know? How could he, in the face of such an inconceivable coincidence? Surely some doubt remained. I had the means to prove myself, but already knew I’d never make use of it.
Dean Makepeace walked me to the door. He shook my hand and said, If you’ll be good enough to clear things up with Gershon, we can put this to rest. The sooner the better. Tonight, say. After dinner.
And get those grades up.
Gershon lived in the basement of Holmes, the sixth-form dormitory, just off the boiler room. Even down there I could hear the boys upstairs, blustering and braying, full of the knowledge that at last the school was theirs. Gershon let me inside the door but no farther, and waited while I began to explain myself.
The room was close and smelled of onions. Gershon had been sewing something, and the table was strewn with scraps of cloth. No books in sight. No pictures. Insulated pipes ran across the ceiling.
As I talked he kept his face averted, his mouth set in a puckered line; he wasn’t wearing his teeth. He would neither speak to me nor give any sign that he was listening. It was obvious that he regarded my visit as a galling evolution of the ugliness I’d already dealt him, and that he’d agreed to it only because he thought he had no choice. I tried to keep my explanation simple and slow. I couldn’t be sure he understood me, though I had the feeling he did and that he didn’t believe a word I was saying.
The story sounded incredible even to me, and its grotesque, improbable accidents—that song, of all songs; Gershon, of all people—robbed my voice of conviction and, finally, of sense. I started to tell him about learning the song from Hartmut, then got lost in describing what a nice guy Hartmut was and how he must not have known what the song was about, or maybe he’d forgotten and just remembered the tune . . . Gershon stared into the corner, sucking his cheeks, enduring me, waiting for the lies to stop and for me to leave him in peace. And still I pushed on. I wanted him to believe me, for my own sake of course, but also for his, so he’d know there weren’t any Nazis here.
Again it occurred to me that I could prove my case: I could tell him that my own father was Jewish. This was true, though he himself never mentioned the fact, not even to me, his only child. My mother had told me only a year before, not long before she died, and I had no idea what it should mean to me. I had been raised Catholic; up to now my teachers had been nuns and the occasional priest, my social world entirely gentile. I knew nothing about Jews except some of their recent history. If I’d learned that my father was descended from Southern Baptists, would that make me a Southern Baptist? No. I would still be the boy I’d been the day before I came into this knowledge. The same with his Jewish ancestry. It was a fact but not a defining fact, neither to be asserted nor denied.
But it had come to a kind of question twice that day, and both times I’d chosen to deny it. Telling Dean Makepeace or Gershon about my father might not have cleared me; Jews can be savage Jew-baiters, as everyone knows, but I didn’t know. I thought I held a trump card, and my refusal to play it amounted to a deception.
The scene with Gershon could be spun into a certain kind of story. The new boy comes to clear things up with the cranky handyman he’s unwittingly affronted and ends up confiding his own Jewish blood, whereupon the handyman melts and a friendship ensues. In time the man who has lost his sons becomes a true father to the boy, enfolding him in the tradition his own false father has denied him. And what irony: the ambitious, upward-striving boy must descend to a basement room to learn the wisdom not being taught in the snob factory upstairs.
Fat chance. I wanted out of there, and I was confiding nothing. I’d let Gershon think the worst of me before I would claim any connection to him, or implicate myself in the fate that had beached him in this room. Why would I want to talk my way into his unlucky tribe? All this came over me as a gathering sense of suffocation. I stammered out a final apology and left, taking the stairs at a run as soon as the door clicked shut behind me.
It had been different that morning with Dean Makepeace, calmer and clearer. I simply decided that it would be better not to use the Jewish defense. There was no obvious reason for being cagey. In my short time at the school I’d seen no bullying or manifest contempt of that kind, and never did. Yet it seemed to me that the Jewish boys, even the popular ones, even the athletes, had a subtly charged field around them, an air of apartness. And somehow the feeling must have settled in me that this apartness did not emanate from the boys themselves, from any quality or wish of their own, but from the school—as if some guardian spirit, indifferent to their personal worth, had risen from the fields and walkways and weathered stone to breathe that apartness upon them.
This was no more than a tremor of apprehension, and though I acted on it I did not allow it to occupy my thoughts. But it never really deserted me. It became a shadow on my faith in the school. Much as I wanted to believe in its egalitarian vision of itself, I never dared put it to the test.
Other boys must have felt the same intimations. Maybe that was why so many of them wanted to become writers. Maybe it seemed to them, as it did to me, that to be a writer was to escape the problems of blood and class. Writers formed a society of their own outside the common hierarchy. This gave them a power not conferred by privilege—the power to create images of the system they stood apart from, and thereby to judge it.
I hadn’t heard anyone speak of a writer as having power. Truth, yes. Wit, understanding, even courage—but never power. We had talked in class about Pasternak and his troubles, and the long history of Russian writers being imprisoned and killed for not writing as the Party wished. Augustus Caesar had sent our Latin master’s beloved Ovid into exile. And when the progressive Mr. Ramsey—himself a gift from England—wanted to show us what mushrooms we all were, he recalled our nation’s inhospitality to Lolita, which he considered the century’s greatest novel since Ulysses—another victim of churlish American censors!
Yet the effect of all these stories was to make me feel not Caesar’s power, but his fear of Ovid. And why would Caesar fear Ovid, except for knowing that neither his divinity nor all his legions could protect him from a good line of poetry.
Reading Group Guide
PEN/Faulkner Award Finalist
National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist
New York Times Notable Book
Winner of the Northern California Book Award in Fiction
“Ingenious. . . . A tour de force. . . . Achieves a real profundity.” –The Boston Globe
The introduction, discussion questions, suggestions for further reading, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your group’s experience of Tobias Wolff’s first full-length novel Old School, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.
1. What is the effect of the first-person narrative style Wolff has chosen for this novel? What kinds of information—or perspectives—does the reader have access to? On the other hand, what kinds of information does first-person narration deny the reader? What terms might describe the narrator’s voice? Why is this narrative style so appropriate for this story?
2. About his desire to win the competition that would give him an audience with Robert Frost, the narrator says, “My aspirations were mystical. I wanted to receive the laying on of hands that had written living stories and poems, hands that had touched the hands of other writers. I wanted to be anointed” [p. 7]. Is his aspiration admirable? What does the boy not understand about how one becomes a writer? How seriously does he work at acquiring the skills of his craft?
3. In social interactions between boys at the school, much is left unsaid. Why is this? Consider the relationship between the narrator and his roommate Bill White [pp. 11–13, 139–40]. What problems of interpretation arise when so little talking is done? Why is this relationship so problematic?
4. During his visit to Gershon to explain his mistake in whistling the Nazi marching tune, the boy decides not to confide the fact that his father is Jewish. He thinks, “I’d let Gershon think the worst of me before I would claim any connection to him, or implicate myself in the fate that had beached him in this room. Why would I want to talk my way into his unlucky tribe?” [p. 23]. What does this episod—including his meeting with the headmaster—tell us about the narrator?
5. Very early on, the narrator tells us that the school adhered informally “to a system of honors that valued nothing you hadn’t done for yourself.” He goes on to say “Dean Makepeace had been a friend of Hemingway’s during World War I and was said to have served as the model for Jake’s fishing buddy Bill in The Sun Also Rises” [p. 4]. What seems here like casual exposition is seen later to be foreshadowing, linking the acts of deception committed by the boy and the headmaster. What other examples do you find of Wolff’s careful attention to the structure of the novel?
6. Having related his experience of Frost’s poem “After Apple-Picking,” the headmaster tells the boys, “Make no mistake . . . a true piece of writing is a dangerous thing. It can change your life” [p. 47]. Why is writing dangerous in this novel, and for whom?
7. Reading The Fountainhead, the narrator says, “I was discovering the force of my will. . . . I understood that nothing stood between me and my greatest desires—nothing between me and greatness itself—but the temptation to doubt my will and bow to counsels of moderation, expedience, and conventional morality, and shrink into the long, slow death of respectability” [p. 68]. Why does Ayn Rand’s writing have such a powerful effect on him, and why does his initial excitement fade upon actually meeting the author? The boy also learns an important lesson when he rereads the stories of Hemingway, whom Ayn Rand has attacked as a creator of “weak, defeated people” [p. 84]. What does he realize, and how is this lesson important for what happens later [pp. 95–99]?
8. As he looks toward graduation, the narrator says it was a “dream that produced the school, not merely English-envy but the yearning for a chivalric world apart from the din of scandal and cheap dispute, the hustles and schemes of modernity itself. As I recognized this dream I also sensed its futility, but so what? . . . With still a month to graduation I was already damp with nostalgia” [p. 134]. If literature plays a critical role in both the school’s chivalric ideal and in the nostalgia the narrator feels, is literature an alternate world in which the narrator would prefer to exist? What is ironic about the above passage?
9. Old School is in large part an examination of the process by which a boy tries to become the person he most desires to be. What does Wolff seem to suggest about the process of self-formation and the fragility of the ego?
10. What is most impressive about the story “Summer Dance” and why does it appeal to the boy so powerfully? Why in typing it does he feel “an intuition of gracious release” [p. 126]? Is this his moment of learning how to “begin to write truly” [p. 126]? Why is it important that he never considers his submission of the story—with slight changes—a deliberate act of plagiarism?
11. The competitors for literary awards are all indebted to other writers: “All of us owed someone, Hemingway or Cummings or Kerouac—or all of them, and more. We wouldn’t have admitted to it but the knowledge was surely there, because imitation was the only charge we never brought against the submissions we mocked so cruelly” [p. 14]. Can it sometimes be difficult to draw a line between healthy imitation and plagiarism? Is the school’s harsh response to the boy’s use of another writer’s story unfair?
12. Speaking of Old School in an interview, Tobias Wolff said, “For this novel to work, the reader has to believe in these boys becoming so madly passionate and competitive about this writing business. That can only happen when there is a complete failure of perspective, which requires a very enclosed world, like an army or a priesthood. Great mistakes can be made because the view becomes so narrow.” How does Wolff create this narrowed perspective? How do his choices of what to describe and what not to describe shape the reader’s perspective on the novel’s events? To what degree does the reader’s perspective merge with the narrator’s?
13. Tobias Wolff gives his readers an intimate view of his main character’s faults. How does your response to the boy change as the novel proceeds? What is the effect, particularly, of the last few chapters?
14. In his review of the novel, Chris Bohjalian noted, “Virtually every chapter in the novel could stand alone as a short story” (The Boston Globe, 4 Jan 2004, C7). Discuss Wolff’s attention to the dramatic tension and the formal structure of each chapter, and decide whether you agree with Bohjalian’s assessment that the novel is informed by Wolff’s experience as a master of the short story.
15. The novel’s epigraph, from a poem by Mark Strand, end with “the truth lies like nothing else and I love the truth.” How does the epigraph relate to the narrator’s confusion and his conflicts with himself?
16. How does the narrator’s meeting with Susan Friedman emphasize the difference between their characters and their approaches to the meaning and purposes of writing? Who is the more mature person? Each of them embodies certain ideals. What are they and what is their essential difference?
17. The book’s final chapter departs from the narrator’s story and moves to Mr. Ramsey’s story about Dean Makepeace, who had allowed himself to be thought of as a friend of Hemingway. How does this story work as a coda to the novel? What is the effect of the shift in perspective?
18. In what ways is humor expressed in this novel, and what kind of humor is it? What situations and descriptions are comical?
19. If you have read Tobias Wolff’s memoir This Boy’s Life, how would you compare it to Old School? What is the difference between memoir and fiction, and how does this question relate to the truth/lies dilemma presented by Old School?