Rachel's Reviews > Old School

Old School by Tobias Wolff
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Nov 01, 09

bookshelves: fiction
Read in November, 2009

This is a short book that would have benefited from being shorter. Set mostly in 1960 - 1961 at a boys' boarding academy, the first 100 pages or so of Old School is reminiscent of A Separate Peace and The Catcher in the Rye both in terms of how boring it is and in how much in love the unnamed narrator is with what he has convinced himself is is own tragic isolation. He's basically an emo kid in a natty blazer.

At this unnamed school (which shares some traditions with The Hill School, a prep school in Pennsylvania from which Wolff was expelled in 1964), visiting writers are hosted three times a year and one student is selected, on the basis of a short story writing competition, for a private audience. In the '60-'61 academic year, the writers slated to visit are Robert Frost, whom Wolff portrays as phonily self-effacing, Ayn Rand, whom Wolff skewers in one of the relatively hilarious segments of the book, and Ernest Hemingway, whose pending visit is the keystone of the novel. The problem is that Wolff doesn't get to it until close to 120 pages into this 195 page novel. Once he gets there, it's tremendously good. Just as wonderful and awful and tragic as Natty Emo Narrator would want it to be, right up until the story's natural conclusion about 30 pages later. Unfortunately, Wolff then keeps talking for another 45 pages or so and kind of ruins the whole thing.

At one point, the narrator says, "as a writer, how could I refuse to bring the story to so satisfying and shapely a close? Maybe that shapely close was part of what held me back. The appetite for decisive endings, even the belief that they're possible, makes me uneasy in life as in writing ..." Wolff himself goes way beyond the shapely close and tries to provide at least three shapely closes, each one less necessary than the previous one. Had he stopped in 1961, with the narrator pushing his way into the smoking car of the passenger train, this would have been a much, much better novel.
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Comments (showing 1-6 of 6) (6 new)

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message 1: by Lara (new) - added it

Lara Ooh! This book is in my queue! How far along are you? I may start reading it so I can force you into being a book club with me!


Rachel I am on page 3. CATCH UP WITH ME!


message 3: by Stefanie (new)

Stefanie I was just going to forward my Goodreads email to Lara to prove that if she hadn't friended you yet here, she must, but alas, clearly she's already on top of that. :-)

(Excellent review is what I'm saying. You crack me up, lady.)


Rachel The main thing is that I am saving you from reading this book. Don't do it! Except for maybe pages 100 to 150.


message 5: by Lara (new) - added it

Lara Rachel, how did I miss your response? Instead of catching up with you, I picked up American Wife so I could make Stefanie be in a mini-book club with me.

Anyway, so - Old School is not good? That's a shame!


Rachel It's not terrible, but it would make a better short story, I think. It's the only thing I've read by Tobias Wolff, and I do like parts of it, so I will probably read something else by him in the future. Just not this one again.


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