Old School by Tobias Wolff
Read: because my good friend Noelle sent me a copy because she loved it so much. (Vintage, 195 pages)
Rating: 7 out of 10 (finished 2/23/10)
Synopsis: A scholarship boy at a New England prep school grapples with literary ambition and insecurity in this lucid, deceptively sedate novel, set in the early 1960s and narrated by the unnamed protagonist from the vantage point of adulthood. Each year, the school hosts a number of visiting writers, and the boys in the top form are allowed to compete for a private audience by composing a poem or story. The narrator judges the skills of his competitors, avidly exposing his classmates’ weaknesses and calculating their potential. His own chances are hurt by his inability to be honest with himself and examine his ambivalent feelings about his Jewish roots. After failing to win audiences with Robert Frost and Ayn Rand, he is determined to be chosen by the last and best guest, legendary Ernest Hemingway. The anxiety of influence afflicts all the boys, but in crafting his final literary offering, the narrator discovers inspiration in imitation, finding his voice in someone else’s.
Overall Impression: I know why Noelle loved this book — it’s all Ernest Hemmingway-ish. And she loves him. I mean, her dog was named Hemi for goodness’ sake.
Like a lot of other reviewers, it took me a little while to realize this wasn’t memoir. It felt very memoir-y. And it sort of rolled along, and I when I got toward the end I kept thinking it was a lot deeper than it felt when I was reading it. I took quite a bit away from it once I finished. It was a story of innocence lost and of the obsession of a writer’s mind. It was part Dead Poets Society and part A Separate Peace and part its own story. I liked the characters, or at least I found them intriguing – they were three-dimensional and interesting and passionate. The idea of fighting with everything you have to earn a private audience with a famous author is intriguing to most anyone who writes, I think. I also really loved the writing itself; it was fluid and beautiful. For being only 195 pages, though, it took me too long to get through it — it didn’t capture my attention like other books I’ve read lately. I had to force myself to sit down and read it, and that was a little frustrating. But that being said, I’d still like to read more from Wolff.
Pros: Beautiful writing, well-written characters, it’s a book about the passionate English major
Cons: A concept (boys at a boarding school who love English) that’s been a bit overdone, it took me too long to get through it.
Other books I’ve read by Tobias Wolff: none
Other blogger reviews: Theresa at Shelf Love