Modulations on Nostalgia
BY JEFF SEVERS
Old School: A NovelBy Tobias WolffKnopf208 pages, $22
hen teenage Stephen Dedalus finally writes a poem, Joyce makes sure it’s a bad one. That’s the rule in painting portraits of artists as young men—they have to have room to grow into their mature creators, have to be less artist than young man. Tobias Wolff has taken that formula to comic lengths, putting poetry and story fragments that are plenty sophomoric in Old School, a novel in which an older writer reflects on his 1960 senior year at a New England prep school known for its literary contests. One plum, written by our unnamed narrator, begins: “to the hopeless of the hopeless of the night/ i sing my song…”. Another, a novel by his friend, brings together in one snow-bound hunting lodge an actor, his wife, and the surgeon who once saved the actor and is now sleeping with the wife. Yet another, a poem about milkmaids titled “First Frost,” wins the first contest the narrator tells us about—because the visiting judge, Robert Frost, thinks the poem a wonderfully gutsy parody by its bumbling author, who thought he was writing a sure-bet homage.
Around these earnest scribblers Wolff has built a story that accumulates, slowly and subtly, into an examination of the American cult of authorial celebrity, of the false perceptions promoted by writers, heroes more generally, and those who envy their accomplishments from afar. Without ever foisting analysis on us, Wolff’s reflective narrator learns what parts of himself he’s sacrificing in gunning for the big prize, a private audience in the headmaster’s rose garden with a literary giant. He has the talent to get there; he just needs something true to write about.
Instead, he tries to learn the nuances of an expert sentence by typing out story after story by Hemingway, who looms in this novel—true to its early-’60s setting—as the great example of cult-author. The narrator and his friends converse in loving mockery of his lines (“That is your bed, and it is a good bed, and you must make it and you must make it well”). They hang on every word of a dean who is said to have driven ambulances with Papa during the Great War. And when Hemingway is announced as the judge for the final contest before graduation, the narrator sits at his typewriter, procrastinating by transcribing more Nick Adams stories, paralyzed with fear. Believe it or not, his learning process makes for page-turning reading. For in their disillusioning drive to win at the game of writing, Wolff has made these boys narratively exciting—not to mention wholly American. Sweating it out over their Underwoods as deadlines approach, suspicious of each other’s maneuvers, they’re believers in the national myth of the manly artist-hero, that outsized image, rooted in Melville, that led Hemingway and Mailer to liken literary art to bullfighting and boxing. In America, Wolff knows, we’ve always been a little vulgar about artistic maturation, enamored with experience and impatient with idealistic sensitives like Joyce’s Stephen. We need to rank the field and know who’s best, perfectly willing to have our literature run like sports—a fact that Wolff readily exploits in getting this slight story told.
As the book’s title implies, these types of author-fixations and this sort of school just don’t exist any more. These students thrill to their teachers’ explications of Faulkner, and the best writers challenge for the social esteem of quarterbacks. The narrator, writing about it all from the distance of his 50s, calls himself “nostalgic” at one point, and though his memories are never gauzily sentimental, his book is a love letter of sorts to the bygone years of 1950s’ consensus. In its 1960-61 setting—before the assassination of Kennedy (whom the boys also admire, not least for his writing), before Vietnam (where the narrator, like former green beret Wolff, will eventually fight)—this school, unnamed throughout, is a neverland, a place where pure aesthetic pleasures momentarily eclipse brewing turmoil. Frost, on his visit, delivers his own nostalgic homily to the rustic world his formally perfect poems enshrine, scoffing at a question from a devotee of (gasp!) Ginsberg about free verse and the “modern consciousness.” Yet so rich and complex are Wolff’s modulations on this issue of nostalgia that we finish the book wondering if every character in it—narrator included—hasn’t spent his manhood and his art chasing after and revising a golden vision of his youth. s a tale of artistic and intellectual becoming, then, Old School is a great success; but as a portrait of the realm of worldly wants in which the imagination inevitably has to live, it impresses me less. Stephen Dedalus emerged from a roiling world of sexual agony, religious alienation, and nationalist sentiment to vow that he would live in silence, exile, and cunning. I didn’t want Wolff’s narrator to do that exactly; but I did want to feel more compelled by the elements of class, ethnicity, and simple social awkwardness impinging on his maturation. Shouldn’t an 18-year-old boy, for instance, whatever the historical context, care more about sex than this one, who seems almost as worried about a potential girlfriend teasing him for liking Ayn Rand as he is about her making out with a classmate?
I stress this because Wolff, you can tell, wants this to be a novel of tough social insight, to undercut his book-drunk narrator’s hope that “Maybe… to be a writer was to escape the problems of blood and class.” A scholarship student at a boarding school loaded with executives’ sons, he’s well aware of the palatial vacations they enjoy while he takes holidays in his grandfather’s boring Baltimore apartment and works summers as a dishwasher. He’s half-Jewish, too, an identity he keeps secret from his WASP classmates, as well as his Jewish roommate and best friend.
But these salient details, while pondered at length and given a few tense moments, have little dramatic consequence in the novel, which spends most of its scenes on lit-mag meetings, long nights at the typewriter, and speeches by the visiting writers. Like its gentlemanly rich students, who turn “cold at the mention of money,” the novel keeps conflict between characters submerged, trying to evoke its narrator’s shames and epiphanies almost entirely through shifts in what books he likes and what he chooses to write about. In a middle section I was quite happy to have over, Rand comes to judge one of the contests and gives an extended rant about capitalism and human will intended by Wolff, it seems, to continue the class themes. But the narrator’s dalliance with Rand’s ideas is soon mercifully over, and the utopian, class-dissolving spell cast on these boys by the meritocratic writing contests remains, for me, a bit too complete.
These failures at placing us inside the dirty, extended dramas for which we prize fiction may remind us that Wolff, though a celebrated author of short stories and memoirs, has never published a full-length novel before. Readers of his rightly lauded memoir of ’50s youth, This Boy’s Life, will remember that the poor, resourceful Toby Wolff, after forging his credentials, goes off to a prestigious boarding school in Pennsylvania. Though I don’t know if he entered writing contests there, so true-to-life do Old School’s students and their visiting writers seem that we might see this book as This Boy’s Life II, a continuation, despite Wolff calling it a novel, in the memoir mode he has mastered, set slightly to the north of his own experience. In a way it’s a tribute to the smoothness of Wolff’s story that, were it not for “A Novel” on the title page, I might have mistaken it for just such a memoir. But in the end—noting the often loose, autobiographical structure, the lack of resonant incident for several of the supporting characters, the distanced quality of the remembered narrative—I wonder if Old School isn’t too much like a memoir and not enough like a novel.
Still, who can really complain about genre distinctions in the presence of prose as supple and welcoming as Wolff’s? With it he captures perfectly that elegiac love one has for a time when one’s youth and talent were well-incubated. In the masterful final section, the aging dean who knew Hemingway longs to take another of his night-time walks across the quad. “The dorms gave forth a singular din at night—fifty different records playing at once, doors slamming, loud voices in long hallways, the faint hiss of many showers all running together. [He] always stopped to listen…, as another man might linger on the call of a distant owl.” Wolff’s dedication page reads “For my teachers,” and it’s clear that this dean, while deludedly nostalgic in his own way, is the sort of common hero the book can finally settle on. Unlike the narrator, he has the great fortune, teaching new Toby Wolffs each year, of never having to leave the warm womb of the old school. Jeff Severs is a writer in Austin.