Wednesday, February 13, 2008

"Old School" by Tobias Wolff

I just watched my roommate Paul walk out the door. Paul is fresh back from a week in sunny Texas, which has given him an extra hop in his step. You can always tell the people in Portland who have just been somewhere else -- they always have that extra hop in their step. This is probably because it's been less than sixty days since they last saw the sun.

As one of the many Portlanders stuck in the dreaded It stage of the year, I've turned to books for my sunshine. I'm pleased to give a huge huge huge megahuge recommendation to Tobias Wolff's Old School. I picked this book up for two reasons: 1. Because Tobias Wolff bears a striking resemblance to Tobias Funke; and 2. Because Wolff's This Boy's Life is my favorite memoir ever, and in my top ten for "overall fave books."

You know what? Usually I make off-the-cuff, arbitrary statements about books, movies, et al being in the top ten. Let's see what my list would actually look like, off the top of my head:

1. The Beach (Alex Garland)
2. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (JK Rowling)
3. The Catcher in the Rye (Jerome David Salinger)
4. This Boy's Life (Tobias Wolff)
5. The Ground Beneath Her Feet (Salmon Rushdie)
6. A Prayer for Owen Meany (John Irving)
7. Blue Like Jazz (Donald Miller)
8. Moneyball (Michael Lewis)
9. Faithful (Stephen King and Stewart O'Nan)
10. In God We Trust...All Others Pay Cash (Jean Shepherd)
11. Heavier Than Heaven: A Biography of Kurt Cobain (Charles Cross)
12. Bringing Down the House (Ben Mezrich)

If you're the judging type, please judge my literary taste by the BOOK, not the movie. Also, it's worth noting this list is in order of how much I loved the book at the time. If I had to re-read them all, they might be in a completely different order.



Where was I?


Oh yeah: Old School is not quite up to the level of This Boy's Life, nor should I have expected it to be. Doing so is akin to expecting the next JK Rowling book to measure up to Harry Potter, or thinking Will Ferrell will always be able to duplicate Anchorman. This is still a darn good book.

The problem with darn good books, of course, is that I have too many things I want to say about them. Thought, thought, thought, thing I learned and then I'm incoherent, unable to put together a solid thesis statement. Instead of putting you through that, let me give you an excerpt from Old School. In it the narrator is competing with other prep school writers for the opportunity to meet Robert Frost. One of the things I love about Wolff -- and what you'll see in the below -- is his focus on character detail. Whereas I'm always concerned with the overarching story, you can see where Wolff's desire is to give you the whole, entire visual behind the story. Wish I could do that.

You could tell, reading George's poetry, that he knew his stuff. His lines scanned, he used alliteration and personification. Metonymy. His poems always had a theme and were full of sympathy for the little people of the world. They bored me stiff but George had expertise and gave occasional intimations of power in reserve.

I didn't really believe he would win. He seemed more professor than writer with his watch chain and hairy tweed cap and slow, well-considered speech. The effect was less stuffy than dear, and that was George's problem; he was too dear, too kind. I never heard him say a hard word about anyone, and it visibly grieved him when the rest of us made sport of our schoolmates, especially those with hopes of being published in Troubador. At our editorial meetings he argued for almost every submission, even knowing that we could take only a fraction of them. It was maddening. You couldn't tell whether he actually liked a piece or just hated turning people down. This provoked the rest of us to an even greater ferocity of judgment than we were naturally inclined to.

George's benevolence did not serve his writing well. For all its fluent sympathy, it was toothless. I had some magazine pictures of Ernest Hemingway tacked above my desk. In one he was baring his choppers at the camera in a way that left no doubt of his capacity for rending and tearing, which seemed plainly connected to his strength as a writer.

Still, I knew better than to write George off. If he just once let a strong feeling get the better of his manners, he might land a good one. He could win. (pages 9-10)

The best part of this book? Not that much actually happens. The entire thing is about character development. Maybe that won't appeal to everyone, but it did to me.

Mike Pacchione
(Mike blogs at

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