My non-structured book group read Old School by Tobias Wolff for our October selection, a quick re-read for me from one of my favorite short story authors. Many refer to this fictional work as "the memoir in the middle," suggesting that this story of an elite boys prep school with an intensely literary bent is actually a thinly veiled companion piece to Wolff's two memoirs - This Boy's Life and In Pharaoh's Army. Maybe it is and maybe it isn't. Maybe I don't care. Believe that I have said here before that memoir and fiction share much including narrative arc and lie content.
The protagonist of the story occupies a marginalized position in his school - at least in his own mind. His lack of wealth or lineage or sufficient waspishness are known only to himself (and presumably the adults as we see later), and yet he proceeds with the lack of confidence worn by those lying through the story untold. As do many here. Theatricality is a theme throughout by which characters play out their individual, self-assigned roles. Their self-chosen lies.
So in trying to discover the truths about themselves, many on campus have become feverishly attached to these writing competitions in which a famous author visit is announced and the students are invited to submit their stories and poems to said author. The award for the best of the offerings is a private audience with the writer after the guest presentation to the assembly of students and staff. And to me, the tales of Robert Frost's and Ayn Rand's visits and the scheduled Ernest Hemingway visit are the most enjoyable parts of the book. Perfect executed depictions of the theatricality, the calculated presence of these famous authors, leaving me wondering if we should assume that the drama the boys embrace is just an act of mimicry of those they admire or writers are all born liars. And I mean that in the nicest way.
What also strikes me about the book is that these sharp, eloquent pages come across as somehow episodic. I can see the short story writer here as many of the sections could be lifted and transformed into independent short pieces. Especially the hilarious Ayn Rand section. Wolff is at his best at darkly funny. If you need a little convincing on that count, pick up a copy of the short story collection Our Story Begins and find the story of the hunters who shoot their friend and transport him to the hospital in the back of a pickup truck in freezing cold weather as they make pit stops for alcoholic beverages. My favorite. Sick. I laughed out loud.
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