Tobias Wolff’s Old School: Truth, Tangent, and Return

After yesterday’s post on yearning and return, I realized I had omitted something that had been on my mind for a long time. Here it is.

If you have not yet read Tobias Wolff’s novel Old School (2003), please read it before reading this piece, which will reveal some of the ending. I also encourage you to put off reading reviews until you have read the book. Though widely praised, it has been strangely misunderstood by some, including Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times. Such are the pitfalls of reviewing: the best reviews draw attention to good work (or preserve us from mediocrity), while the worst sacrifice the book to the reviewer’s own needs and frailties. Few reviewers are consistently insightful; they succumb to their own stuff, as we all do at times. That’s how I see Kakutani’s review. Enough of that.

I am writing about this book because, from the first reading in 2003 through the third and most recent one yesterday, I have been carrying it around in my mind. I pick it up (literally or in the imagination) and return to favorite passages. It says more about education than many an education book; it is part of my own education. It is the ending that seizes me, though everything else builds slowly to it—an ending that seems a tangent but becomes a return and revelation. I will look at this return today.

The narrator is a boy—whose name we never learn—at an elite boys’ boarding school that believes it isn’t snobbish and that takes pride in being a literary place. (Yet, for all its unwitting pretense, the place is dreamlike and alive with teaching, learning, and literature.) The school has a competition: boys in their final year compete three times a year for a private audience with a distinguished writer. They vie ferociously for this honor, writing strained (and funny) verse and prose that they hope will impress their idols. This year’s writers are Robert Frost, Ayn Rand, and—though he never comes to the school—Ernest Hemingway.

George Kellogg, one of the narrator’s classmates, wins the audience with Frost with a poem that includes these lines:

Corn’s high on the silo, hay’s stacked in the loft,
Cordwood’s halfway up to the roof, doorcracks plugged with clay.
So let come what will, hard ground, short day,
I’ve done all I am able—and after all, the snow is soft.

Awful, yet somehow thoughtful, deliberate, competent verse. Frost assumes Kellogg is making fun of his own poetry, and congratulates him in that spirit. Frost’s reading in the school chapel, staged and conniving, leads you to think, at first, that he can only tell truth by fooling you. But when an English teacher, Mr. Ramsey, asks him a stilted question about modern consciousness and form, Frost says something that (form and all) rings bloody true. This sets the pattern for the rest of the novel. Each writer, directly or indirectly, through positive or negative example (or both) will bring out something about truth, writing, and life. This happens subtly, almost undercover.

Frost replies (I’m quoting just the end of his response):

I am thinking of Achilles’ grief. … That famous, terrible, grief. Let me tell you boys something. Such grief can only be told in form. Maybe it only really exists in form. Form is everything. Without it you’ve got nothing but a stubbed-toe cry—sincere, maybe, for what that’s worth, but with no depth or carry. No echo. You may have a grievance but you do not have grief, and grievances are for petitions, not poetry. Does that answer your question?

I would not take this as the lesson of the book; I’d be hard-pressed to find a lesson. But the book lives up to these words. It has a beautifully classical three-part form: Frost, Rand, Hemingway… and then something wriggles away, like the cold water running past the trout’s nose in Frost’s actual notebooks; something goes terribly wrong. That going wrong seems to be the point of the story, but it’s only part.

We learn early on that the narrator has told no one about his background. We ourselves learn little of it. His classmate Bill White is Jewish, as he learns during dinner with Bill and Bill’s father; the narrator himself is Jewish (on his father’s side), but he tells no one, not even Bill. In addition, he isn’t rich like the others; during the summer, he worked as a dishwasher in the kitchen crew at a YMCA camp. These secrets rumble dimly through the story, along with the questions, what does it mean to write well? How do we know good writing? When does something ring true?

And so, when it comes time to compete for the audience with Hemingway (I’m skipping over the Ayn Rand part, as important as it is, because there’s much more to say), the narrator happens upon a story that seems to tell his life: a story in the magazine of Miss Cobb’s Academy, the nearby girls’ school. The story draws him in immediately; it turns out to be about a girl who changes her Jewish last name for an occasion: a dance at a nearby country club. It ends with the devastating sentence: Everything’s okay.

What the narrator doesn’t realize at the time (but what we realize when reading it) is that it isn’t the subject matter alone that makes the story seem like his own. It is also the form.

He submits it, thinking it’s his own story, and wins. Then he is found out.

But how could he really believe that this story was his own, to the point where he copied it out and submitted it as his? Doesn’t he know what plagiarism is? This part of the novel seems implausible unless we consider two things: first, it is fiction, and second, it is true. The story about the girl comes closer to the boy’s truth than anything he has read—but not only that, it startles him out of his half-lies, his concealments, his manner of drifting along as though everything were okay.

Nothing is okay any more, for a while, and it’s essential that it not be. He is expelled; instead of going home, he goes to New York and embarks on what he calls an “improvised existence”—odd jobs, drinking, several moves, a girlfriend, Vietnam. But during this time he writes very little, perhaps because “the improvising became an end in itself and left scant room for disciplined invention.”

The “disciplined invention” comes later—when he “went to college and worked like the drones he’d once despised, kept reasonable hours, learned to be alone in a room, learned to throw stuff out, learned to keep gnawing at the same bone until it cracked.” Ah, yes! But this is not the lesson of the story. There is no formula for a writer’s life. “The life that produces writing,” writes Wolff (and we sense more and more that this novel is about Wolff in the full rich sense of “about”—not only mappable onto, but dancing around and through), “can’t be written about. It is a life carried on without the knowledge even of the writer, below the mind’s business and noise, in deep unlit shafts where phantom messengers struggle toward us, killing one another along the way; and when a few survivors break through to our attention they are received as blandly as waiters bringing more coffee.”

A strange thing happens as I type out the above words. I become the narrator himself, typing out the story and submitting it as his own—because, though I am mature enough to know that Wolff’s story isn’t my own, and that I didn’t write Old School, for those few moments I entered into it, and told it, and thought I was telling my story for the first time. But there’s another story waiting, and it turns out to be even more mine, even less mine, and even greater.

The school has a revered dean, Dean Makepeace (known by his colleagues as “Arch”). Rumor has it that he fought alongside Hemingway in World War I and that they know each other. When the headmaster announces that the third visiting writer of the year is Hemingway, the students assume that this is Dean Makepeace’s doing. When the narrator is informed (by the headmaster, in the presence of two faculty members and a student) that he has been expelled from school, Dean Makepeace is strangely absent from the room—his own office. Later we learn that he resigned.

He had never known Hemingway, and though he never exactly said he did, he never dispelled the rumor. He let it grow around him; he let an aura build. He did this not out of vanity but out of a sense of privacy; it was not in his nature to tell much of his life. So, when the headmaster informs Dean Makepeace that the boy must be expelled, Dean Makepeace replies that he himself must resign, since his own dishonesty was worse than the boy’s. He departs from the school and moves in with his sister in Syracuse.

But how do we learn this? This is told in the last chapter of the story, after the narrator (many years after his expulsion) runs into Mr. Ramsey, sits down with him for a few drinks, and hears a little about what happened. Mr. Ramsey tells the story  “in the submerged-iceberg manner he used to mock, so that I was somehow given to know more than was actually said. The spaces he left empty began filling up even as he spoke.” So what we have in the final chapter—and here’s the brilliance of it—is Ramsey’s story transformed into the narrator’s and Wolff’s. It is  a wiser, deeper kind of copying than the earlier one; it is and isn’t copying; it is the copying that defines all fiction.

So this story of Arch Makepeace is the narrator’s story, and it is mine too. It might seem on one level a puzzling digression, but it struck me instead as the real story of Old School. I am telling this in abbreviated form. Please read the novel, or reread it. This summary is no substitute.

As I was saying, Arch starts to miss something.

He regretted quitting his job. He had regretted it that very morning, but didn’t know how to undo what he’d done. Up to the moment he resigned he must have imagined that teaching was a distraction from some greater destiny still his for the taking. Of course he hadn’t said this to himself, but he’d surely felt it, he later decided, because how else could he not have known how useless he would be thereafter? For thirty years he had lived in conversation with boys, answerable to their own sense of how things worked, to their skepticism, and, most gravely, to their trust. Even when alone he had read and thought in their imagined presence, made responsible by it, enlivened and honed by it. Now he read in solitude and thought in solitude and hardly felt himself to be alive.

(This is not how I felt when I left teaching for two years to write a book—the correspondence with my life is not point for point—but there’s a more important kind of truth here, the kind that lives in the “deep unlit shafts” quoted earlier.)

Arch applies for jobs. He knows his chances of finding a job are slim, because he is old and because he resigned from his old position. A former student invites him to apply for a position at a school—and when he goes there to interview, he sees the boys passing by him, taking no notice of him. Out of a sense of privacy, he refuses to say in the interview why he resigned from his former position. He gives up a possibility of a job offer, but that’s not his only loss. He understands that his former “surety” was not inherent in him, not something strangers would recognize in him when he walked by, but was “conferred on him by others, by their knowing and cherishing him.” He decides to return to his school, and is accepted back (with conditions).

What is it like to return to a place you have left by choice and missed? What is it like when you are older, when you have left a way of life, a vocation, that not only was yours but that had entered into you? Or when you are young and stubborn, too stubborn to return? What is it like to admit to a mistake that you might not be able to rectify? And then to come back?

There is no answer, as the experience is private and solitary. But it is also one of the oldest stories known to us. I will not quote the very end—that still feels like sacrilege, even after my spoiler alerts—but I’ll quote something just before it, also on the final page.

Though he’d given himself enough time for the drive, he took a wrong turn outside Worcester on a route he’d travelled for years, then got lost again while backtracking and arrived at the school nearly an hour late. No time for a change of clothes, let alone a shower and shave. He fished a tie from one of the boxes on the backseat, but his fingers were stiff and he kept flubbing the knot. Finally he stopped and looked down the tunnel of leafy trees overhanging the lane. He did not drive away. He adjusted the rearview mirror and coaxed his tie into a perfect knot, then eased himself out of the car. Standing up after all these hours of driving made him lightheaded, and he steadied himself against the roof of the car. It was late afternoon, the air heavy and fragrant with the smell of cut grass. He took his stick out of the back and started up the lane.

I, too, have wended my way back to a school; gotten lost on the way and then lost again; found my way; found myself sloppily dressed, sweaty, and out of sorts; and yet, arriving nearly an hour late (for a book discussion led by my former English teachers), walked through the doors, dizzy but steady, a teacher now, entering my beloved old school.

But such correspondences are not what make the story true. It’s the gestures of it, large and small, and the grace and shock of the gestures.

 

Note: I made a few minor edits on December 21, 2016, long after posting this piece.

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9 Comments

  1. XSDZKE%

     /  July 2, 2013

    Good review of the book

    Reply
  2. Thanks for this delightfully raw and helpful review. I just finished reading the book (at age 65, about to start teaching and a product of a private boy’s high school). Your lens feels real to me and a useful guide…..

    Reply
  3. Rosalind Faraday

     /  August 11, 2014

    Reading and teaching “Huckleberry Finn” was such a joy, so full of humanity, discovery, and joy, but that was 60 years ago! Now at 93 ( no longer teaching!), I am totally flummoxed by something as totally esoteric as “Old School”. Omigod!

    Reply
  4. Sam

     /  October 14, 2014

    An insightful and beautifully written review! I just finished the book and thought I could use some help with the analysis – this is exactly what I needed!

    Reply
  5. Kashish Hura

     /  September 2, 2017

    Hi Diana, that’s an amazing review! I’ve just started reading the book and I was wondering if you can tell me of any recurring theme/ motifs you liked the best so I can look out for them too?

    Reply
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