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Read and Learn
on 23 June 2004
Like Wolff's other books, Old School can be read in a day or so thanks to its triple virtues of brevity, readability and moreishness.
I am convinced that it's as much memoir as fiction, since the nameless narrator fits Wolff in age (at high school in 1960) and goes on to fight in Vietnam. The book therefore fits in chronogically, very neatly between the end of This Boy's Life and the beginning of In Pharaoh's Army. Several of the early set pieces, too, have the ring of truth in that they're neither outlandish nor neat enough to be exclusive hand-tooled fiction. But that's not to say it isn't well written, which it is - perfectly - and of which the first paragraph should be evidence enough:
"Robert Frost made his visit in November of 1960, just a week after the general election. It tells you something about our school that the prospect of his arrival cooked up more interest than the contest between Nixon and Kennedy, which for most of us was no contest at all. Nixon was a straight arrow and a scold. If he'd been one of us we would have glued his shoes to the floor. Kennedy, though - here was a warrior, an ironist, terse and unhysterical. He had his clothes under control. His wife was a fox. And he read and wrote books, one of which, Why England Slept, was required reading in my honors history seminar. We recognised Kennedy; we could still see in him the boy who would have been a favorite here, roguish and literate, and with that almost formal insouciance that both enacted and discounted the fact of his class."
The opening line refers to the meat of the book - visiting writers come to the school, and one boy will get to have a private audience with him or her. This boy is the one who writes the best story, to be judged by the esteemed visitor. Here is where the book becomes more obviously fictional and inventive, with a straightish plot involving plagiarism and dishonour. It is also where Wolff is at his best, in the scenes where Frost and later Ayn Rand visit the school, and in the build-up to the visit by the great white shark of boy's own American literature, Ernest Hemingway, the narrator's literary idol. Wolff has great fun at the expense of Randy Ann's (to almost anagrammatize her) swivel-eyed right-of-Hitler madness, and puts in Frost's mouth an eloquent rebuttal to a questioner who demands agreement that formal rhyme and rhythm in verse is inadequate in the face of 'modern consciousness', beaten and blustered as it is by war and angst:
"Don't tell me about war. I lost my nearest friend in the one they call the Great War. So did Achilles lose his friend in the war, and Homer did no injustice to his grief by writing about it in dactylic hexameters. There've always been wars, and they've always been as foul as we could make them. It is very fine and pleasant to think ourselves the most put-upon folk in history - but then everyone has thought that from the beginning. It makes a grand excuse for all manner of laziness. But about my friend. I wrote a poem for him. I still write poems for him. Would you honor [that word again: a theme in Old School] your friend by putting words down anyhow, just as they come to you - with no thought for the sound they make, the meaning of their sound, the sound of their meaning? Would that give a true account of the loss?
"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."
And there you have it. A short book which is a breeze to read and which is filled with things that you will keep coming back to (I'm damn near tempted to start it again right now). What are you waiting for?