by John Dicker

Sometimes solemn, slightly precocious, and forever self-eviscerating, the unnamed narrator of Tobias Wolff's first novel thirsts for anointment to the American literati. But like recent bete noirs of American letters, his lust for unearned greatness leads him astray.

After two award-winning short story collections and as many praised memoirs (This Boy's Life, In Pharaoh's Army), it's hard to believe this is Tobias Wolff's first novel. Those familiar with his memoirs can't help but ponder the line between fiction and autobiography, as Old School is set in the heart of Wolff country: coming of age on the shakier rungs of the class ladder.

The time is the early 1960s; the place, the kind of New England prep school where ruling class boys are readied for the boardroom and the golf course. It's the sort of pedigreed institution capable of bringing visiting writers of the stature of Robert Frost, Ayn Rand and Ernest Hemingway to address their tweedy tyros.

Whereas many male coming-of-age novels take their sustenance from peer politics, sexual conquests or the sporting life, Wolff's is devoted exclusively to how literature intoxicates young minds. In this lair of privilege resides Wolff's narrator, a scholarship boy for whom literary achievement is tantamount to victory in his very own class struggle. Couple this with prolonged gender segregation and the resulting "feminization of competition" -- the idea that without women around, all repressed sexuality is channeled into competition -- it's not hard to foresee a breakdown.

Wolff captures a time and place when even the most graying of writers were as revered as any rock star, their verse regurgitated in the same way any given mall-rat might spit out a Slim Shady stanza. It's a wonderful evocation, especially as it's free of sentimentality while delving into the dark side of the reader gone wild.

Where the candy-appled prepsters of Dead Poets Society thirsted on poetry in a schmaltzy semi-subversive way, Wolff's narrator abuses it as an identity crutch. Reading (and rereading) Rand's The Fountainhead, he not only adopts her contempt for the weak, but becomes so febrile from her persona that he has to spend weeks in the infirmary.

Though we can see the narrator's fall coming for some time, when he finally falls it is no less severe. Early in the story, the boy fancies writing as a form of power. What he finds is that the pen may be mightier than the sword, but it cuts both ways -- hard and deep.

Publication date: 11/27/03

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