In his excellent new novel, Tobias Wolff once again proves that the truth is never simple.
BY PAMELA FEINSILBER
Old School, by Tobias Wolff. Wolff discusses this and his other work Dec. 3, Herbst Theatre, 401 Van Ness Ave., S.F., (415) 392-4400.
To call Tobias Wolff one of our best living writers is to state the obvious and understate everything else about his work. But understatement is entirely appropriate when discussing the quietly masterful Wolff, who has been living in the Bay Area and teaching at Stanford since 1997. In his stories, memoirs, and now Old School (Alfred A. Knopf), his just-published novel, his work is the furthest thing from flashy. He writes like a dream, but his is not a Felliniesque version, with astounding feats of imagination portrayed in vibrant colors. His palette is subtle; his tone, low-key but gripping; his purview, the lives of seemingly everyday people. His is the kind of assured writing that seems to move directly from the page into your head: You are simply there, whether he has put you into spartan army barracks, an unloving lower-middle-class home, or, now, a New England prep school in which literature is an obsession for its bright, yearning, secretive protagonist.
Wolff is our Chekhov or William Trevor, combining a rigorous intelligence with a deeply empathetic understanding of humanity, whether in sorrow or joy or the simple nobility of getting through the day. Even in his early memoir, This Boy's Life (1989), Wolff depicts his abusive stepfather as a living being, not a caricature. This is nonfiction that reads more like a novel; in Wolff's world, reality and imagination are not opposing concepts. Sometimes his fiction and nonfiction inform and enrich the other: Interestingly, his new novel picks up just about where the memoir leaves off.
Wolff is probably still best known for This Boy's Life, in which he distilled memories of a difficult boyhood into such an engrossing narrative that it easily became a good film, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as the young Wolff and Robert De Niro as his stepfather. The book begins unforgettably just past the Continental Divide, with a truck careening by as a boy and his mother wait for their car's engine to cool. ("‘Oh, Toby,' my mother said, ‘he's lost his brakes.' The sound of the horn grew distant, then faded in the wind that sighed in the trees all around us.") Among other entertainments, the book shows how Toby grows to be watchful, resourceful, and an excellent liar—in short, we see how Wolff prepares to become a writer.
Toward the end, he even gets himself into prep school by forging not only his transcripts but letters of recommendation: "I wrote without heat or hyperbole, in the words my teachers would have used if they had known me as I knew myself. These were their letters. And on the boy who lived in their letters, the splendid phantom who carried all my hopes, it seemed to me I saw, at last, my own face."
Prep school did not work out; Toby loved books but hadn't gotten a very good education back at Concrete High, not in anything academic. Though he prayed he could stay in a place that he "secretly anddeeply loved," he was expelled and joined the midsixties military. Wolff's experiences at paratroopers' jump school and in Vietnam are the basis for In Pharaoh's Army (1994), another memoir that in many ways—its deft characterization and scene setting, its subtle, sophisticated themes of illusion, maturity, and loss—reads more like fiction.
All along, Wolff has been writing stories about individuals who might (or might not) draw your notice while sitting in a bar, waiting idly for a bus. Look at his novella, The Barracks Thief (1984), or at his three story collections: In the Garden of the North American Martyrs (1981), Back in the World (1985), and The Night in Question (1996). You could discover anyone in a Tobias Wolff tale: an ineffectual priest who finds himself comforting a lonely woman in Las Vegas; a southern recruit whose most desperate battle is against self-knowledge; a girl asked too young to take on responsibilities her parents can't seem to handle. Everyone has a story, you realize, but not everyone can tell it. Fewer still can imagine their way into someone else's tale.
Wolff has done that beautifully in Old School. Some of this material might have found its way into a third memoir rather than a novel, had Wolff made it through his final year of prep school and three famed writers come to visit that year. One of the virtues of this little book—it is less than 200 pages long—is how artfully it conveys just how fervent a passion literature is for those of us who love it. In this all-male school, the scribblers are as honored as the jocks, and the English masters "seemed to us a kind of chivalric order." Each time an author comes to the school, many of the boys compete to spend private time with him or her by writing a story or poem. The set-piece chapters on Robert Frost and Ayn Rand are wonderfully done; you can see and hear them speaking, in their utterly different ways, and the boys' desire for the prize meeting is almost palpable. "My aspirations were mystical," says the young protagonist. "I wanted to receive the laying on of hands that had written living stories and poems....I wanted to be anointed."
On scholarship from a broken, lonely, inelegant home, this boy has hidden his family background in silences and vague replies, never telling a lie yet never once sharing anything real. One evening he discovers a story, in a journal from another school, that seems so much like his own, he begins to rewrite it. Then, having completely forgotten its source, he enters it in the contest to meet his hero, Ernest Hemingway. He feels that for the first time, he is telling the truth ("Anyone who read this story would know who I was"); his headmasters, of course, consider it plagiarism, on the order of forging a recommendation to college.
As in Wolff's best short stories, as in a good novel or novelistic memoir, we've come to know others en route. It should not give away too much to say that Wolff devotes the final chapterin Old School not to this boy but to the dean of the English department, who has also let others believe he is something he's not. Wolff hasn't lost sight of his protagonist. He has simply brought us into another person's life—the old school has meant everything to this man—and in its quiet, moving way, this unexpected ending is thrilling.