In the Great Masters’ Shadows

May 13, 2004 |

Old School
By Tobias Wolff
Knopf. 195 pages. $22.

What’s in a Jewish name?  Quite a bit, in some cases.  Just ask Bernard Schwartz, Issur Danielovitch, and Nathan Greenberg, who became stars as Tony Curtis, Kirk Douglas, and George Burns.

Tobias Wolff never reveals the name of the narrator of his slim new novel, Old School, but it becomes relevant that it isn’t as unmistakably Jewish as, say, Levine. This deft, precise novel takes as its subject the literary influences and aspirations of high school boys, and in doing so it inevitably delves into the developing identity of its protagonist, including his sense of himself as a Jew.

The boy, a scholarship student at an elite boarding school, has been raised Catholic and was only recently informed, by his mother, of his father’s Judaism. “It was a fact,” the boy remarks of this Jewish background, “but not a defining fact.”

Still, strangely, he denies his heritage. One morning, he innocently hums a tune he has learned from an older Austrian acquaintance in the presence of the school custodian, a Holocaust survivor, and is accused of Jew-baiting: the melody turns out to be a Nazi marching song. Though he sees it as a “trump card” that could get him off the hook, the boy decides “that it would be better not to use the Jewish defense.”

Why hide his newfound Judaism, especially in a case where it would get him out of trouble?  He claims there is no anti-Semitism at the school, not even any childish teasing.  This is the early 1960s, and Jews are already accepted as members of the private school community (though blacks and girls have not). Yet, the narrator observes, “the Jewish boys, even the popular ones, even the athletes, had a subtly charged field around them, an air of apartness.”

The question remains as to whether the narrator’s perception of this phenomenon reflects a truth about his genteel, prestigious school or whether it simply stems from his own perfectly natural adolescent sense of alienation. If it is the latter, it wouldn’t be the first time a Jew, or a Jewish literary character, had mistaken his own personal neuroses or alienation for elements of his inherited cultural tradition. (Not a few Jewish authors have made careers out of this mistake.) Nor is the narrator alone when he admits that his Jewish blood feels “most truly [his] own at just those moments when it seemed liable to condescension or ridicule.” Who doesn’t feel somehow extra-Jewish in the presence of an anti-Semite?

The novel’s primary subject isn’t religious identity, though, or even the social dynamics of the boarding school. Wolff’s focus is on the use of literary sources—books, poems, and what is known of the authors who create them—by men, mostly young men, in their processes of self-definition. The narrator and his buddies preside over the campus literary magazine, and during the school year described in the first major section of the novel, their school invites Robert Frost, Ayn Rand, and Ernest Hemingway to visit. According to the school tradition, the boys submit literary works in the weeks leading up to the author’s visit, and a winner is chosen by the celebrity for a private audience. All of this is terribly exciting to the narrator and his peers, and this excitement comes across as quaint and pleasantly antiquated, fitting nicely with the book’s title (and, no, in case you were wondering, Wolff’s novel has nothing to do with last year’s Will Ferrell movie of the same name).

The boys toil feverishly on stories and poems to please the visitors, who, when they arrive, turn out to be confusing, disappointing, or both.  Frost commands the earnest lad he has chosen to meet with him to quit school and flee to Kamchatka or Brazil. Rand’s strident and unsympathetic ideological ranting deflates the magic of The Fountainhead, and Wolff deserves praise for so honestly tracing the arc of excitement, doubt, and disdain that several generations of young readers have now experienced with regard to Rand’s ideology and fiction.

The crux of Wolff’s novel comes when the protagonist, inspired by Hemingway’s impending visit, attempts to produce a story that will finally reveal the truth about who he is, both in terms of class and religion. But as Philip Roth could also attest in 1960, authors who scrutinize themselves and the communities from which they emerge encounter all manner of objections; while Goodbye, Columbus was called anti-Semitic, Wolff’s narrator gets tripped up by the issue of ownership. As he reads another student’s story, he feels “as if [his] inmost vault had been smashed open and looted and every hidden thing spread out across these pages.” To whom, ultimately, does such a story belong: to the author who has written it or to the readers in whom it produces such startling effects? In a couple of late episodes, Wolff goes further, to wonder if the author’s life and persona belong more to his readers, with whose lives he becomes inextricably entwined, than to himself.

These heady issues emerge naturally from Wolff’s skillful and simple plot, which is narrated with the compression of a master of the short story form. The result is a brilliant novel about reading and writing informed by the experiences of a lifelong practitioner, but with none of the solipsism, navel-gazing, or preciousness typical of fiction about fiction.

[Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.]