I’m sure most of us have a pretty set idea of prep school stories, whether from movies like Dead Poets’ Society and Scent of a Woman, or from novels like A Separate Peace or several works by John Irving. The basics usually include uptight headmasters, bullying, childish pranks, intense competition, and hushed-tone invocations of the Honor Code. The crux usually comes in the form of some kind of character forming rebellion against authority.
Tobias Wolff’s Old School is not a typical prep-school novel, until suddenly it is, and then just as suddenly is not again. Perhaps you’d have to read the novel to get my meaning. (Not a particularly arduous assignment, as the text runs to only 195 pages.) The book initially takes the form of a first-person telling of the narrator’s last year at an exclusive East Coast prep school, where he has worked diligently at both his studies and at his efforts to conceal his working-class background. Through brief encounters with his classmates, we get a sense of just how comfortably the unnamed protagonist has adapted to this world of posh snobbery.
Wolff is far more interested in the mind of his narrator than in the goings-on at the school, though the academic calendar is paid respect to with the necessary economy of words. Wolff is quite adept at sketching his narrator’s surroundings just enough to allow the reader to complete the picture on their own without undue effort. Our protagonist considers himself a literary man, and this being 1960, is obsessed with Hemingway and the idea of living a life that provides material for stories. Many of his classmates are similarly obsessed.
The main form shaping the early sections of Old School are the writing contests our narrator and his cohorts enter. The prize for the winning story or poem is a private audience with that season’s visiting guest lecturer. These visits give Wolff a handy excuse to demonstrate his skills at impersonation and parody. Wolff deftly paints recognizable portraits of Robert Frost and Ayn Rand, while also ably mimicking the type of rough but talented efforts of a bunch of teenage aspiring writers.
With the announcement of the third illustrious writer to visit campus, Old School settles into a more familiar prep-school novel format, as the excitement surrounding the contest sends the whole campus reeling and raises the stakes on the competitive nature of the boys and especially our narrator.
After this brief flurry of excitement very quickly changes gears, and in an entirely unexpected direction. It’s a curious move which I don’t want to give away, but while it might strike some as tacked on, to me it served to re-establish the prep-school setting and explicate why it is such a familiar and reassuring staple of American literature.