Last week, I attended a public lecture by Tobias Wolff and was reminded yet again about how much I enjoy him as a writer. Old School is his only novel. He has a lot of short stories and a memoir. The title of the memoir is This Boy's Life and it was made into a movie with Leonardo DiCaprio playing Wolff and Robert DeNiro playing his abusive stepfather. The book was so harrowing that I knew I couldn't stand to watch the movie. But that's a different thread. Wolff is currently a professor at Stanford University near San Francisco, California.
While this is fiction, much of it is based on Wolff's really unusual life. He grew up solidly working class in Florida and Concrete, Washington (yes, the place exists). His mother was a big reader, but no one else was and his high school English class consisted of learning to write a business letter. He had to live through the hellish experiences with his step-father. Finally, through means that are explored in his memoir, he finagled admission and a scholarship to an elite East Coast boys' prep school and suddenly found himself immersed in a life where writing and literature were revered. In his lecture last week, he said that the it was as if he had gone to a different planet.
In the book, a working class boy attends, on scholarship, an elite East Coast boys' prep school that is obsessed with literature. It is set during one year in the 1960s. During that year, three great writers are to visit the school, Robert Frost, Ayn Rand, and Earnest Hemingway. The boys compete to win a writing competition that is rewarded by a private audience with one of the writers. The writers don't come across very well, but it really doesn't matter. What they write and how their writing inspires the boys is what matters. A lot of the inspiration results in terribly derivative writing, which adds humor to the story. But in the end, the boys have learned a huge amount about writing and literature--and life.
Tobias Wolff also visited my daughter's college in the Fall and the question she wanted to ask was whether his development as a writer followed the same arc of imitation of different favorite writers. She didn't get to ask the question, but answring that question was the focus of his lecture. He said that's exactly what happened. When he was a child, he loved the Albert Payson Terhune (as did I) and so he wrote a bunch of dog stories. A librarian suggested that, since he loved dogs, he should read Jack London and he did. He loved the stories so much that he wrote a bunch of wolf stories and insisted that everyone call him "Jack." Then he got into O'Henry books and so all of his stories had interesting twists at the end. Eventually, he found his own voice, but said that the period of imitating the voices of others was necessary for him to be ready to find his own voice.
The book does have a twist that is not mirrored in Wolff's life. In the lecture, he said that that was frequently the case with fiction. You can take aspects of your personality or life and come up with consequences that never happened, but could have.
Everyone I know who has read this book loves it. My daughter had to read it in high school (too early, I think) and again before her freshman year in college. She loved it both times and even read This Boy's Life at my urging. That will be a different thread.