‘I can’t imagine anything more quaint than a scatological retelling of some nursery tale, or a fiction about a writer writing the fiction you are reading,’ Tobias Wolff confessed in his 1993 introduction to the Picador Book of Contemporary American Stories. Writing fiction about a writer who is writing the fiction we are reading, Wolff would have us understand, is obscene. A writer reaching out from behind the curtain of the page to wave at the crowd undermines the enterprise: the rich illusion of reality is ruined. The writers whom Wolff esteems most – among them Kafka, Hemingway and Chekhov – share ‘the ability to breathe into their work distinct living presences beyond their own: imagined Others fashioned from words, who somehow take on flesh and blood and moral nature’.
Wolff therefore has no tolerance for Postmodernism. The Postmodern and metafictionist ‘impatience with the inherited forms and assumptions of realistic fiction’ leaves him cold, and of the 42 stories he chose to offer British readers as a representative portrait of recent American output, his preference for writing that exhibited ‘an unembarrassed faith in the power of stories to clarify our sense of reality’ resulted in his failure to include even a single story written in the Postmodern manner.
Raymond Carver, to whom the volume was dedicated, was the anthology’s presiding deity, and the stories that made Wolff’s cut, like those for which Carver was famous, tended to highlight the fraught domestic dynamics of modern life, ‘difficulties between husbands and wives, fathers and sons, sisters and brothers’. Most were written by established names, among them Frank Conroy, Stuart Dybeck, Richard Ford, Joyce Carol Oates, Robert Stone and Amy Tan. Those writers known partly for formal experimentation whose work Wolff did include (among them Lorrie Moore, Denis Johnson and Mary Robison) did not, in the stories Wolff selected, engage with the question of how a story convinces us of its reality. This is not to say that the stories Wolff selected were not interesting stories. Rather, it became abundantly clear that he had very narrow criteria for what makes a story interesting.
What is interesting now, ten years later, is how unrepresentative Wolff’s selection has turned out to be. His 724-page anthology managed to exclude two generations of avant-garde American writing that have flourished and endured. Wolff sidestepped Postmodern elders such as John Barth, Robert Coover, Guy Davenport, William Gass, Harry Mathews, Paul Metcalf, Gilbert Sorrentino, Ronald Sukenick and Paul West, as well as their heirs, such as T. Coraghessan Boyle, Lydia Davis, Rick Moody, William Vollmann and David Foster Wallace. None of these writers – however popular or influential, however frequently their writing appeared in the Paris Review or Conjunctions or the year-end Best American and Pushcart anthologies – managed to stir him. The ‘tone of mandarin scorn in which the Postmodern ironist not infrequently addresses his readers’ proved incompatible with Wolff’s idea of the writerly endeavour.
We writers are too careful not to romanticise our calling. We’re afraid of sounding soft-headed and self-indulgent. The idea is to make it seem a job like any other. Well, it isn’t. Nobody would do it if it were. Romance is what keeps us going, the old romantic Frankenstein dream of working a miracle, making life where there was none. That’s what these writers are after, and if they were after anything less, why should we read them?
Officially, Wolff is the author of seven books of fiction and non-fiction. A first novel, Ugly Rumours, a tale of the Vietnam War, appeared in Britain in 1975 but is always omitted from his list of publications. To read it is to understand why: the book is a simplistic, moralising mess. Wolff’s pair of protagonists, a Special Forces lieutenant and an Army sergeant, are two-dimensional stand-ins for Big Ideas: the cynical non-believer and the conflicted man of faith. They never take on Wolff’s desired ‘flesh and blood and moral nature’. In the book’s best scene, however, there is a suggestive seed of achievement to come. The cynical lieutenant, Woermer, wounded on duty after he agrees to go on a manoeuvre in place of his sergeant friend, is interviewed by an English journalist hungry for gory details:
Woermer, in desperation, tried to explain how it felt to have a mine go off almost under your feet, the sound so loud you could not hear it, the sudden lightness of body, all of it. But the right words would never come . . . His imagination took over from his memory. He led the scribbling Englishman through tiger-infested jungles, escapes from entire divisions of hardcore Vietcong, and daring daylight raids on enemy headquarters. Woermer told these lies without pleasure, because he saw the reporter had no respect for truth.
The desire to report experience truly, and the hope that his readers will respond to, and respect, the cost of this truth, has characterised Wolff’s work since Ugly Rumours. Typically, his protagonists face an acute moral dilemma, unable to reconcile what they know to be true with what they feel to be true. Duplicity is their great failing, and Wolff’s main theme in three short-story collections, In the Garden of North American Martyrs, Back in the World and This Night in Question. In ‘The Liar’ (1980), a son whose father dies in his family’s living-room moves him upstairs before anyone learns of the death, to give others the impression that he died with dignity, in bed. When his ruse is discovered by his mother, the boy wonders whether she is angry ‘because I had not told her the truth? Or because she had learned the truth, and could not go on believing that Father had died in bed? I really don’t know.’ In ‘Mortals’ (1993), a hack reporter is fired for writing an obituary without checking that the man in question is dead, only to learn that the supposedly dead man is both alive and responsible for the misunderstanding: the reporter is guilty of too readily believing other people’s stories.
Wolff has become immensely adept at finding new ways of dramatising the gulf between the world of fact and the fictions of the self. In the remarkable story ‘Nightingale’ (1996), a father drives his son to a military school in which he has enrolled the boy to toughen him up. Returning home alone, he has misgivings: ‘Why should he begrudge his son his childhood?’ He decides to return to the school and withdraw the boy, but gets lost. At the end of the story he gets out of the car and climbs a hill:
When he reached the crest he stopped. All around him the fields rolled empty away. He felt a stone under his shoe, nudged it aside, then bent to pick it up. Not a stone, after all. A button – a metal button caked with dirt. He picked at it until the brass was revealed, then examined it in the last of the light. Under the verdigris he could make out a pair of crossed swords. A military button, then. An old one. Something must have happened here, long ago – that was why he’d been drawn to this place. A battle had been fought, no quarter given; boys became men, and were lost. Wasn’t that the way of it? He slipped the button in his pocket and started down the hill.
Wolff is also known for two fine memoirs, This Boy’s Life and In Pharaoh’s Army. In This Boy’s Life, duplicity is once again central to the story. Wolff recounts his own bravura act of adolescent deceit, one that revealed his character, prefigured his fate and foreshadowed his artistic preoccupations. An admitted liar and thief regularly punished for his transgressions by a brutish stepfather, Wolff escaped by transgressing further, and more creatively: he counterfeited a complete application – successfully faking transcripts, inventing accomplishments, and forging letters of recommendation – that won him a scholarship to the Hill School, a prestigious preparatory school three thousand miles from his stepfather:
I wrote out rough copies in longhand, then typed up the final versions on official stationery, using different machines in the typing lab at school . . . The words came as easily as if someone were breathing them into my ear. I felt full of things that had to be said, full of stifled truth. That was what I thought I was writing – the truth.
Like This Boy’s Life, like his short stories, and like the best parts of his orphaned first novel, Wolff’s new novel, Old School, is deeply invested in matters of truth. Set in an unnamed Northeastern American boarding school of the 1960s, Old School is told in the first person by an unnamed narrator. That narrator, we come to understand, is now a famous writer. The text we are reading is his creation, written decades after most of the events it details.
The main action takes place during the narrator’s final year at the school. These ‘book-drunk boys’ live and breathe literature, and are in the right place for it: the dean is friends with Hemingway, the headmaster was a student of Frost’s. Three times a year, they compete against each other in literary competitions that confer the most coveted of prizes: an audience with one of the famous writers who come to the school to judge their entries. Edmund Wilson has come in the past. Mary McCarthy too. Who will it be this year? Rumours fly. The boys are stirred into a froth, write, posture, jockey for aesthetic advantage. Like bookish bookies, they make odds against each other. And gripe about the winners:
The writers didn’t know us, so no one could accuse them of playing favourites, but that didn’t stop us from disputing their choices. How could Robert Penn Warren prefer Kit Morton’s plain dying-grandmother story to Lance Leavitt’s stream-of-consciousness monologue from the viewpoint of a condemned man smoking his last cigarette while pouring daringly profane contempt over the judgment of a world that punishes you for one measly murder while ignoring the murder of millions? It didn’t seem right that Lance, who defied the decorums of language and bourgeois morality, should have to look on while Robert Penn Warren walked the garden with a sentimentalist like Kit (whose story, through its vulgar nakedness of feeling, had moved me to secret tears).
At its most basic, Old School is a gripping story about a teenager who wants, as urgently as Wolff wanted to get into prep school, to win the big prize – to be a writer. Although the narrator hasn’t fled an abusive father, he actively denies his patrimony at every turn. We never see him in the company of his father, but we learn, through the staccato insinuations of his prose, of the family tragedy the narrator has fled. He thinks of his father’s ‘sad, fleshy face’ and we wonder about the nature of that sadness until it is resolved sometime later with a short, killing clause snuck into a longer sentence: ‘My mother had told me only a year before, not long before she died, and I had no idea what it should mean to me.’ Through these evasive disclosures (his mother’s death is never mentioned again), literature’s romantic pull on the narrator becomes clear: reading is so far his only means of articulating the darkness inside him.
As guides to this bottomless inner world, the school’s English masters take on a heroic glow: they ‘seemed to us a kind of chivalric order’. They are seen as the boys’ spiritual fathers:
Say you’ve just read Faulkner’s ‘Barn Burning’. Like the son in the story, you’ve sensed the faults in your father’s character. Thinking about them makes you uncomfortable; left alone, you’d probably close the book and move on to other thoughts. But instead you are taken in hand by a tall, brooding man with a distinguished limp who involves you and a roomful of other boys in the consideration of what it means to be a son. The loyalty that is your duty and your worth and your problem. The goodness of loyalty and its difficulties and snares, how loyalty might also become betrayal – of the self and the world outside the circle of blood.
You’ve never had this conversation before, not with anyone.
The narrator’s recognition of literature’s ability to make the world intelligible partly explains his youthful infection with the writing bug. But there is also a darker, less grand reason for it.
The narrator of Old School is preoccupied with his standing. A scholarship boy, he has, like the excellent student he is, studied his classmates, aping their every affectation: ‘I had made myself the picture of careless gentility, ironically cordial when not distracted, hair precisely unkempt, shoes down at heel, clothes rumpled and frayed to perfection . . . I had also meant to wipe out any trace of the public school virtues – sharpness of dress, keenness of manner, spanking cleanliness, freshness, niceness, sincerity – I used to cultivate.’ His greatest fear is exposure of the fraudulence of his claim. When the dean suspects him of duplicity, it isn’t the dean’s temper that he fears: ‘Anger, which I knew to be transient . . . I was used to and could easily bear. What I saw was dislike, which can’t be shrugged off, which abides.’
His fear of being known, and of not being good, is memorably dramatised in the episode in which he encounters the dean. It comes in the novel’s first chapter, ‘Class Picture’ – a title, like all the chapter titles, with a double meaning. While walking behind one of the school’s old handymen, a man called Gershon, the narrator whistles a tune learned from an Austrian co-worker during a summer job as a dishwasher. Hearing the melody, Gershon turns on his heels and angrily demands his name. Not long afterwards, the narrator is called before the dean and reprimanded for acting so cruelly ‘to a man in Gershon’s position’. The narrator doesn’t understand: ‘I was just whistling.’ The dean, who makes him hum a few bars, informs him that the tune is the ‘Horst Wessel Song’. Surely he must have known Gershon’s family – Jews – were killed by the Nazis? The narrator confesses that he did not. And although he tells us that he dearly wished to prove his innocence to the dean – and even had proof – he knew ‘he’d never make use of it.’ The risk of censure for anti-semitism, he understood, was preferable to admitting ‘that my own father was Jewish’.
Why would the narrator have feared such an admission? Because he had seen that ‘Jewish boys, even the popular ones, even the athletes, had a subtly charged field around them, an air of apartness.’ Join in that apartness? Admit to that patrimony? ‘Fat chance . . . Why would I want to talk my way into his unlucky tribe?’ Why indeed. Especially when there is another, luckier tribe the narrator wants to join: ‘to be a writer was to escape the problems of blood and class. Writers formed a society of their own outside the common hierarchy. This gave them a power not conferred by privilege – the power to create images of the system they stood apart from, and thereby to judge it.’
Unfortunately, the narrator’s young self is a terrible writer. Not that it’s any great mystery why. Reading his favourite writers, Faulkner, Maupassant, Hemingway, he has come to understand what, at minimum, good writing takes: ‘Hemingway’s willingness to let himself be seen as he was, in uncertainty or meanness or fear, even empty of feeling, somehow gave the charge of truth to everything else. My stories were designed to make me appear as I was not. They were props in an act. I couldn’t read any of them without thrusting the pages away in mortification.’
He tries, though. The chapter ‘On Fire’ – a reference both to a campus fire and to the way the protagonist’s memory of it ignites his imagination – centres on the writing of a poem. The narrator had been watching one of the firemen in particular:
He had tired-looking eyes, and held himself a little apart. He was less covert than the others in sizing us up. I thought about him after they finished and drove away
That was how I came to write my new poem, a narrative in which I described a fireman the morning after a big blaze. He’s been the hero that night, braving walls of flame to rescue a little girl. Now it’s over. He goes home and it’s Saturday morning and his son is watching TV. He fries himself some eggs but doesn’t eat them. He’s oppressed by the crumbs on the kitchen table, the dirty cereal bowls, the smell of burnt toast and last night’s fish. The television is too loud. Then he’s on his feet and in the living-room and he’s just yelled something, he doesn’t know what, and his boy is looking at him with coldness and disdain.
It sounds like a good poem, and the narrator needs it to be: it could win him an audience with Robert Frost. But he can’t bring himself to submit it. ‘It was too close to home. It was home.’ The fireman was his father, every detail drawn from their miserable life since his mother’s death. The narrator can’t yet bear to let himself out, doesn’t want to feel the pain this writing brings him: ‘I thought writing should give me pleasure.’ The false freedom of fitting in, of not showing oneself, becomes the true prison of self-consciousness. To write truthfully is to risk self-exposure, and the narrator won’t succeed in his ambition until he is willing to let himself be seen for what he is. ‘Finally,’ though, he tells us, ‘one does want to be known.’
Given the care with which Wolff orchestrates his narrator’s self-revelation – the surprising path it takes and the thoroughly destructive wake it leaves – it would be unfair to give away much more of what happens or how. Suffice it to say that the process by which a writer makes, or takes, the truth, is rarely without casualties. And it is the process by which raw experience achieves formal coherence that concerns Wolff here. No less than the Postmoderns, Wolff is preoccupied with form, albeit less self-consciously, or at least less visibly so. Old School is a fiction about a writer writing the non-fiction we are reading, but there isn’t anything quaint about the conceit, no irony to the proceedings, no waving from the wings. We never question the surface solidity of Wolff’s narrative. What we do question is why anyone would court such violence and failure in pursuit of truth in stories. The now famous older narrator says his writing ‘had indeed cut me off, and given pain to others’. The essence of that contradictory impulse to do good by not infrequently causing pain is something Wolff articulates well in his memoir of Vietnam, In Pharaoh’s Army:
I wanted to be a writer . . . had described myself as one to anybody who would listen since I was 16. It was laughable for a boy my age to call himself a writer on the evidence of two stories in a school lit mag, but improbable as the self-conception was, it nevertheless changed my way of looking at the world. The life around me began at last to take on form, to signify. No longer a powerless confusion of desires, I was now a protagonist, the hero of a novel to which I endlessly added from the stories I dreamed and saw everywhere. The problem was, I began to see stories even where I shouldn’t, where what was required of me was simple fellow feeling. I turned into a predator, and one of the things I became predatory about was experience. I fetishised it, collected it, kept strict inventory. It seemed to me the radical source of authority in the writers whose company I wanted to join, in spite of their own coy deference to the ugly stepsisters honesty, knowledge, human sympathy, historical consciousness and, ugliest of all, hard work. They were just being polite. Experience was the clapper in the bell.
Experience collected at any cost. Late in Old School, when the narrator has children of his own, he runs into one of his old English teachers, who has since become the school’s headmaster. They reminisce about the odd things that happened during the narrator’s final term. The headmaster idly mentions that there was more to it than the narrator knows. Conversation continues. Eventually, the narrator leads the discussion back to the headmaster’s allusion to there being a ‘hell of a story’:
I let a moment pass, then said: You mentioned a story.
He allowed me a fleeting smile. There is a problem of confidentiality. I can rely on your discretion?
The headmaster tells him the story nonetheless, but we don’t get to hear it. The camera draws back. The curtain closes, only to open one last time. The final chapter of Old School, entitled ‘Master’, is the narrator’s telling of the story he was told by the headmaster. The narrator does not figure in it. It concerns instead one of his old English teachers, the dean whose dislike he had worried over and whose classes on Faulkner had, in a way, saved him. The story tells of one last duplicity for which the teacher paid and by which he was eventually redeemed. It is a beautiful piece of writing and, unlike so many of Wolff’s stories, manages to reconcile what its protagonist knows to be true and what he feels to be true. But ‘Master’, like many episodes in Old School, can be read another way. It is itself also an act of duplicity, in which one person’s story is, at best, indiscreetly passed along and, at worst, brazenly stolen like fire from the gods, that it may bring warmth and light to others. By this transforming theft, both the narrator and Wolff demonstrate their mastery.