Thursday, March 13, 2008

OLD SCHOOL by Tobias Wolff

Tobias Wolff's Old School is the second book I've read in a year about a prep school student on scholarship who is a fish out of water. In this case, however, he's not a loner, and he's one of several students with realistic literary ambitions at a school whose reputation rests on its literary program. Each term is highlighted by a composition contest in the preferred genre of a visiting writer, who judges the entries and grants the winner an hour-long dialogue. You don't have to love literature to love this book, but it probably helps. Robert Frost's argument for the form in poetry, the scathingly funny depiction of Ayn Rand's high-mindedness, and Hemingway's letter about courage and truth are all fictional and yet fitting for what we expect from each author. There are so many captivating stories here, including that of Little Jeff and Big Jeff, in a love-hate relationship where one's loyalty gives the other the courage to keep from self-destructing. Ultimately, the book is about forgiveness, and Wolff develops this theme in a marvelous way, citing two parallel transgressions. One is huge, but the culprit is somehow barely aware of its severity, and the other is more of an oversight that generates more guilt than the deed warrants.

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