Sunday, January 30, 2005

50 Book Challenge #8: Old School

Ms. Fowler's mention of it reminded me that I've been meaning to read Tobias Wolff's Old School for several years: ever since I saw This Boy's Life, the film based on his autobiography. (That film, incidentally, along with What's Eating Gilbert Grape, proves that DiCaprio can act. But I still can't bring myself to see The Aviator.)

Old School is short and slight, but well written and true. It seems loosely autobiographical. (Wolff, if the credits in This Boy's Life were accurate, was a scholarship student at an Eastern prep school like our narrator; like him, Wolff was expelled.) The school brings famous writers in as visitors and the boys compete for personal audiences with the masters by way of writing contests judged by their idols. This device allows Wolff to show the boys' deep commitment to writing and how reading shapes adolescent character. The chapter discussing Ayn Rand's visit to the school and the narrator's embrace and subsequent rejection of her philosophy captured something common to many teenagers. The narrator's expulsion from school is treated in an oddly amoral manner, but this is consonant with the sentiment expressed by the teacher who takes him to the train station:
"Send a boy packing if he breaks the rules, by all means. Plant a boot in his backside, but do please leave the word honor out of it. . . . No need to be pawing at their souls. Honor Code? Pretentious nonsense."
Wolff's an excellent writer, despite his inability to use quotation marks (at least some remarks are attributed, which puts Wolff above the execrable Cormac McCarthy). I would recommend Old School.
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