Learning to Write Truly-A Lovely Second First Novel

Old School , by Tobias Wolff. Alfred A . Knopf, 195 pages, $22.

With the publication of Old School , Tobias Wolff-who freely admits to spending six months on a single short story-has scraped whatever sheen remains off the writer’s mystique. I suspect that Mr. Wolff embraces the maxim attributed to Anthony Burgess: If you want to become a writer, admit that you have no God-given talent, then put your ass in a chair and type. That kind of work ethic doesn’t come naturally to everyone, a problem that trips up the nameless narrator of Old School , Mr. Wolff’s beautiful, frustratingly short novel.

Old School is about writers and teachers and the mystery behind this question: “How do you begin to write truly?” It takes place during the narrator’s fourth year at a peculiarly literary boy’s prep school in New England. In their fourth year, the boys compete for a private audience with a visiting writer. As if they were bookies, they weigh the odds on each classmate. Their worst nightmare is that an undeserving dark horse might win. For example, Hurst, “a boy who wasn’t even known to be a contender” and “an apparent Philistine … won an audience with Edmund Wilson for a series of satirical odes in Latin.” Why the mad rush to meet poets and novelists? Our narrator explains, “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 anointed.”

One of the great pleasures of Old School is the cameo appearances of visiting authors-Robert Frost, first and most memorably, then Ayn Rand and Ernest Hemingway. The visits, as a faculty member notes with disgust after the fact, are used purely as a motivational tool to summon a body of work from the boys. Sprinkled, blessedly, through the first two-thirds of the novel are scenes of literary heavyweights addressing an entire class (and a lucky student tête-à-tête). The glimpses are in step with what we think we know of these figures: Frost is an articulate, mean old man with a keen sense of humor, whose evisceration of a teacher falls nicely in line with the man who wrote of a dead boy’s family in “Out, Out-”: “And they, since they / Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.” Rand, all dressed in black and with sycophants in tow, is elegantly coarse. “If you had to name the single greatest work by an American author, what would it be?” She’s asked. ” Atlas Shrugged ,” is her answer.

The schoolboys-our narrator included-are fanatically attached to writers, especially Hemingway, the bearded, pugilistic drunk who hovers, beautifully, offstage. The boys are in love with the final product-they love the writing, they love the author’s persona-but they have no appreciation, no awareness, of the process. No surprise, then, that our narrator’s own writing is sub-par, and almost none of it finished. Mr. Wolff nails the would-be writer’s rationalization: “The beauty of a fragment is that it still supports the hope of brilliant completeness.” If the narrator were actually to complete something, he might be disappointed with the result.

A number of the most ardent students edit and distribute Troubadour , the school’s aptly named literary magazine. As one of the editors, our narrator has no trouble finding space for his work. The meetings are all pomp and circumstance, with the editors solemnly agreeing that each other’s work is suitable for publication. In the latter portion of Old School , this carefully propped-up dignity begins to crumble, prompted by a submission from a boy named Buckles. “Oh for Christ’s sake, run the stupid thing!” says an editor. “It’s not like the rest of this crap’s about to set the world on fire.”

The cold blast of this assessment leads almost immediately to our narrator’s fall from grace. He’s by no means a bad kid. His greatest fear is expulsion, a punishment so awful it’s hardly discussed (“No announcements were made and no lessons preached”). He’s expelled, of course, for a breach of the “Honor Code”: He plagiarizes a story from another high-school literary magazine, an issue from five years back. The author is female-a girl called Susan Friedman-but our boy sees only himself in the writing: “Anyone who read this story would know who I was.”

Years later, our narrator writes to her and they meet. It feels like an epilogue. Susan Friedman turns out to be a tough character; she’s not at all serious about writing, about her talent. She’s training to be a doctor. Our narrator informs her that she should “keep writing,” to which she replies: “Mmm, don’t think so. Too frivolous. Know what I mean? It just cuts you off and makes you selfish and doesn’t really do any good.” She has the decency to soften the blow: “Just one gal’s opinion.”

Old School is advertised as Tobias Wolff’s first novel. It’s not: He published a novel he’s since disowned, Ugly Rumours , in England in 1975. When a fellow writer asked Mr. Wolff about it, he said, “I would be much obliged if you would let this sleeping dog lie.” I’ve never read Ugly Rumours ; I can’t even find a copy for under $1,000.

This new first novel won’t disappear in the same way. It’s a book even Susan Friedman would like: It looks back on youthful naïveté and laziness, on the half-truths and untruths we tell and believe in, and forbears from passing judgment. It favors those who persevere, who quit worrying about their God-given talent or the lack thereof.

Elon R. Green is a reporter at The Observer .