n o v el ,’N, a , . . . 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 bookdrunk 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 pala tial vacations they enjoy while he takes holidays in his grandfather’s bor ing Baltimore apartment and works summers as a dishwasher. He’s halfJewish, 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 cratic 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 writ ers 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 endnoting the often loose, autobiographical structure, the lack of reso nant incident for several of the supporting characters the distanced quality of the remembered narrativeI 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 a singular din at nightfifty 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. by the meritoforth 1/16/04 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 23
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