Why did you lie to me?
I always thought I told the truth.
Why did you lie to me?
Because the truth lies like nothing else and I love the truth.
With this epigram, taken from Mark Strand’s “Elegy for My Father,” Tobias Wolff begins his novel Old School, a book about how a writer becomes a writer, and about how writing itself is both necessarily deception and profoundly the truth.
Note I said it was a novel. Readers of Tobias Wolff could be excused for thinking it was no such thing, but rather the missing piece of the authorial story that would come between his wonderful memoir of childhood, This Boy’s Life, and his memoir of his years in Vietnam, In Pharaoh’s Army. In fact, despite the plainly printed words “a novel” on the cover, I read three-quarters of the book thinking it was autobiographical. It has the ring of truth.
The novel is the story of a young man at an elite boarding school. This school prides itself on its meritocracy, not of riches or of sports, but of literature: the most popular boys are the best writers, and the teachers are nearly gods: “How did they command such deference — English teachers? Compared to the men who taught physics or biology, what did they really know of the world? It seemed to me, and not only to me, that they knew exactly what was most worth knowing.” Every year, the school invites visiting writers to come and speak to the school. The boys submit stories and poems to be judged, and from this fierce competition, one lucky boy is chosen to walk with the visiting author, the master, and receive wisdom. Our narrator wants to be a writer, works for the literary magazine, and in every waking moment hides his true self: his scholarship, his Jewish ancestry, his real feelings. All he wants, with his entire self, is to be the winner: to have that moment in the sun, to get that advice, to be recognized.
The story is structured around three competitions (and two authors’ visits; the third doesn’t show up.) First comes Robert Frost. Wolff has the old poet down so well — his trick of reading aloud, his sense of humor, encompassing himself as well as others, his dryness — that I never thought to question this section’s authenticity. “It is very fine and pleasant to think ourselves the most put-upon folk in history,” says Frost, “but then everyone has thought that from the beginning… You may have a grievance but you do not have grief, and grievances are for petitions, not poetry.” Didn’t Frost really say that?
Next comes Ayn Rand, who finds the narrator literally in a delirium. This is one of the funniest parts, as Wolff skewers Rand’s philosophy, her tendency to appeal to adolescents, and her own towering personality. “To revere yourself is to live truly,” she barks. “And as I know only too well, to live truly is to live at war. Yes, at war — with the people and the party and the guilt-peddling Jesus industry!” And the narrator learns another lesson: that the unscarred, undefeated heroes are rarely as attractive in real life as they are on the page. Truth versus deception.
The final invited author is Ernest Hemingway. And at that time, in that place, it’s as if they’d invited the President and Daniel Boone and Hercules and the greatest writer of all time, all rolled into one muscular, hairy-chested, masculine ball. The narrator has to win, is on fire to win. And what he does to win the contest, how he deceives and tells the absolute, soul-baring truth at the same time, is the best moment of the novel. That action leads him away from the school, because truth and deception both have their consequences, but it’s those events that make him a writer, stripping away one kind of falsehood and giving him a different and more powerful kind.
My one cavil with the book was that I didn’t think the coda (or codas?) were necessary. There are two stories that come after what I considered the natural stopping place, and they were interesting, and they illuminated the theme of the book, but they didn’t seem to belong. I think they could have been cut; they just seemed like extra short story material to me. But on the whole, the book is powerful, yet subtle; chiaroscuro, gentle, but unmistakable. No pounding moral lessons, but lessons everywhere for the taking, if you so desire, about how writing done for selfish reasons — to win a contest, to meet a celebrity — can serve the highest reasons of art and love. And what writing! Every time I read Tobias Wolff, I wonder why I don’t read more Tobias Wolff. Take this novel (novel!) and read about the formation of a writer, who at some point in his career learned to tell the truth.