by Dominic Scarpelli

Old School

by Tobias Wolff

(Knopf) $22

"Though it seems hard to believe," reads the Knopf press packet, "Old School is Tobias Wolff's first novel." It does seem hard to believe, because it's not true: In 1975, Wolff's first novel, Ugly Rumours, was printed in England. Wolff doesn't like Ugly Rumours enough to officially acknowledge it--he recently told the Los Angeles Times that he "couldn't read a word of it without cringing. So I don't call attention to it." Several situations in Ugly Rumours, though, reappeared in Wolff's 1994 Vietnam memoir In Pharaoh's Army. One stereotype about first novels is that they contain a lot of autobiography. Wolff's first novel followed this format, and his second first novel does so as well.

Wolff fans may feel a sense of recognition and disappointment upon learning that Old School is set in an exclusive prep school in the 1960s, because Wolff described going to an exclusive prep school in the 1960s in his memoir This Boy's Life, and has written several short stories in the same setting. (Some of these short stories constitute portions of this book.) And the voice of Old School's narrator--a snobby adolescent boy, prone to duplicity and acutely aware of his failings--sounds a lot like the voice of the snobby adolescent boy, prone to duplicity and acutely aware of his failings, who narrates This Boy's Life. Wolff is talented enough to pull off something adventurous, but Old School isn't that: It feels very safe, even redundant.

The whining of a disappointed (and, at this point, slightly bored) fan aside, it's an assured and compassionate novel, a love letter to literature and youth. The boys at Wolff's boarding school are bound awkwardly in their adolescence, alone in a place where history and tradition echo out of the past: "[T]he Jewish boys, even the popular ones, even the athletes, had a subtly charged field around them, an air of apartness... 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." The unnamed narrator was raised Catholic, but his father is Jewish--although that doesn't mean much to either of them--and in other ways he doesn't belong: He's there on a scholarship. "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."

Old School looks at the discrepancy between the ideal of the school--a place where class and faith are second to academic achievement--and the reality of it, and makes some modest suggestions about the value of art in this environment. For the boys who work at the school's literary review, writing is a way to pull away from the social structure: "[I]t seemed to them, as it seemed 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." The narrator and his friends at the review participate in the school's traditional competition for an audience with a distinguished visiting writer--whoever writes the best short story wins. Robert Frost comes, and then Ayn Rand. This occasions some mockery of the overwrought conceits of teenage fiction, the cardboard characters and the maudlin plots. The boys are imitating their betters, stealing outright at times, and they're clumsy and earnest, malleable, taking on personalities in accord with the tone of what they read. For a brief period the narrator falls under the spell of Rand's shrill, histrionic rants, and it's scary and funny and surprisingly touching--an acknowledgment of the force that strong writing can bring to bear on the young.

There's a generosity in Old School that feels weathered and unforced, something conveyed through glances at the characters that show them to be kinder than they seem at first. It's warm writing, but never sappy. This is familiar territory for Wolff, but he knows how to use it well.

Tobias Wolff reads at Third Place Books (17171 Bothell Way NE, 366-3333) on Mon Dec 1 at 7 pm.