A review dedicated to and inspired by my friend Eh!, who reads things backwards.
This book is way literary meta. It’s so meta that there are prereq reading requirements for an optimal experience. Everyone knows Robert Frost, right? So, I’m not putting him on the list. But, I require you to read Atlas Shrugged, The Sun Also Rises, and (if you liked The Sun Also Rises
, but not if you hated it) A Farewell to Arms before you read Old School
. If you don’t care for Hemingway, you’ll probably not care for this book. But, it might still be worth reading for the Atlas Shrugged
joke. You might think that sounds like a lot of work, but you should be reading those books anyway, so I don’t know what you’re complaining about. If you don’t want the reading prereqs, This Boy’s Life is just as good and relies a lot less on the meta.
I’m pretty sure Wolff was monitoring my literary preferences through a satellite feed at his office in Stanford while he was writing this. This book is just the definitive description of how I feel about reading and writing and literature and fame, authors I love and authors I hate. Maybe it’s how I feel about everything I consider important in life. I’m convinced that it was written to me. To add to the meta of this book, when I met Wolff some years back, the experience was exactly what he describes of himself meeting authors. There always seems to be a cream pie for me to faceplant into when I meet authors.
I think Tobias Wolff, both his fictional self in this book and his memoir self in others, is a sort of Holden Caulfield, if Holden was born poor and on the West Coast. To me that means that he is lovely and a genius. He’s also probably scrappier than Holden, though I think Holden has his own version of urban scrappiness. Even though Old School
is all about boys, and women only appear in weird fun-house-mirror shapes, I still find the characters identifiable. They are boys, but they are not just that – they are writers and students.
I’m a devoted fan of modernism and spare writing, and it strikes me that some of the more clean, modernist writers alive today write memoirs. I’m thinking of Jeannette Walls and Tobias Wolff. Not that two writers make a trend, but I can’t think of any current fiction writers I have read that edit with the skill those two have. I guess, most modernism has a coming-of-age feeling of crushed narcissism and idolatry, and that is something that fills my heart up every time. It’s that laughter and tears recipe like a hearty meal. I absolutely love it.
Anyway, this book basically picks up where This Boy’s Life
leaves off in the story of Tobias Wolff’s life, so it might be best to read that one first. I read this first, and I still didn’t guess the end of the other, so I don’t necessarily think it’s terrible to read this one first if you’ve done your necessary literary background reading. Mostly, this book is a tribute to some wonderful authors who have had a hand in shaping American literature. If you don’t know the authors, I’d think reading this would be a little like watching the Oscars without having seen any of the movies up for awards. You can still do it and be entertained by the song and dance, but you don’t have that investment at the moment they announce that Brittany Spears is a better actress than Meryl Streep, or some such.