OLD SCHOOL by Tobias Wolff
The voice of the Narrator ranks as the writing element most likely to hook me as a reader. When voice works, the energy of the words resonate in my body, not because they feel like mine, but because I wish they were mine. That connection creates the necessary empathy for me to be swept into the story. This connection has nothing to do with actions done by the narrator, or the events that happened to him. My empathy for the narrator is rooted in how well the character is reaching me through their Point of View. Tobias Wolff‘s Narrator in Old School yanked me out of my world and into his.
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, on ironist, terse and unhysterical. He had his clothes under control. His wife was fox. And he read and wrote books, one of which, Why England Slept, was required reading in my honors history seminar. We recognized Kennedy; we could still see in him the boy who would’ve been a favorite here, roguish and literate, with that almost formal insouciance that both enacted and discounted the fact of his class.
We begin the paragraph with Robert Frost and end with a note on class. It makes perfect sense and all we want is more. We’re riveted by every detail of the Narrator’s final year of prep school and we don’t even know his name. His anonymity allowed me to slip deep into his psyche. The result: I was more in sync with Wolff’s Narrator than I ever was with myself at his age. The strength of this empathetic bond led me to come of age all over again.
What sets Old School apart from coming of age novels such as Catcher in the Rye is the way Wolff offers up his Narrator’s point of view. When Holden Caulfield speaks I’m laughing because he’s so adamant about what he believes. I also agree with him because he voices what I was never able to say. However, when the unnamed Narrator in Old School expresses his POV, he’s equally adamant about how he feels, yet he gives you room to examine the idea for yourself.
Rhyme is bullshit. Rhyme says everything works out in the end. All harmony and order. When I see rhyme in a poem, I know I’m getting lied to. Go ahead, laugh! It’s true—rhyme’s a completely bankrupt device. It’s just wistful thinking. Nostalgia.
The beauty of this wiggle room also provides space enough for the Narrator’s own transformation. We meet him at the beginning of a series of writing competitions. The winner of each contest will be awarded an interview with the famous writer judging each round: Robert Frost, Ayn Rand, Ernest Hemingway. He wants to win; his goal is to become a writer. The problem: he doesn’t see this opportunity as a means to improve his craft, he only sees it as an end in itself.
My aspirations were mystical. I wanted to receive the laying on of hands that had written living stories and poems, hands that had touched the hands of other writers. I wanted to be annointed.
Eventually the magnitude of the situation sinks in.
Only one of us could be chosen, we all understood that, yet you couldn’t help feeling that not to be chosen was to be rejected. And to be rejected by Ernest Hemingway—Ernest Hemingway tossing your story aside, No, not him, not a prayer. What a terrible thought.
Unfortunately, when motivation kicks in so does the pressure of competition and all the evils that accompany it: denial, fear, procrastination.
So far I’d been unable to complete even a paragraph […] All I needed was a good beginning, something to get me started in the morning […] When Bill White came back from the library at midnight I still hadn’t written a word.
Whether you’re an artist or not, the agony of getting in your own way when you want nothing more than to excel, hits home; and our unnamed Narrator becomes Everyman.
It’s the specifics of the Narrator’s journey through denial, fear and procrastination that Wolff ratchets up the stakes. This was a lightbulb writing moment for me. Old School contains no action sequences, no diabolical antagonist, no surprising plot twists, and yet, the suspense is uncanny. And the increase in tension is achieved through the inaction of the Narrator. This works because the smaller intentions and motivations are clear, as in this passage where the Narrator is reading Rand’s The Fountainhead for the fourth time.
I wasn’t writing, but that didn’t trouble me—I knew I could deliver my story when the time came. What I was doing was tanking up on self-certainty, transfusing Roark’s arrogant, steely spirit into my own.
The Narrator’s need to psyche himself up to battle his fear of failure is understandable, but what he’s doing isn’t going to help. He’s avoiding the bigger issue.
My stories are designed to make me appear as I was not. They were props in an act.
He doesn’t know who he is. This fact is Hemingway simple and drives the entire novel from the Narrator’s subconscious. No bells or whistles necessary because the situation Wolff plops the Narrator into is all the fuel needed to set fire to this character’s inner turmoil and sends him on the road of self-sabotage.
Old School possesses the simplicity of Hemingway, the suspense of Robert Ludlum and a Narrator you’ll want to introduce to everyone you know.