OLD SCHOOL is written in the form of a fictionalized memoir of a student at an elite, circa 1960s, prep school full of "book-drunk"
boys. Through a series of student writing competitions to win the prize of a private audience with a well know author, the reader of this book is treated to a profile of Carl Sandburg, Ayn Rand, and Earnest Hemingway. Along the way we are taught a lessons in how ambition disguised as passion for writing can lead to unfortunate outcomes. There is a hilarious bit of humor inserted in the story when Ayn Rand misinterprets a student's essay written in support of vegetarianism to be instead an invective against big government. I don't think the author thinks highly of Ayn Rand. At the end of the book the narrator is an adult reflecting on his school days. "Memory,"
he says, "is a dream to begin with, and what I had was a dream of memory, not to be put to the test."
From his memories he distills a story of failed expectations and, in the end, redemptive self awareness.
I am sufficiently "book-drunk" myself to appreciate this vicarious immersion into literature. I'm also human enough to identify with a story of failure to achieve the grandiose plans of youthful dreams. Reflecting back on ones past life and coming to peace with the many what-could-have-been's is, I suppose, part of achieving inner peace. And that is what happens in this book. The final words of the books are, "His Father when he saw him coming ran to meet him."
Anyone familiar with the Christian New Testament will recognize where that came from. So the overall message of the book is one of forgiveness, both the giving and the receiving.
Frankly, the title turned me off. Neither of the words "old" nor "school" (as in elite eastern prep) have much appeal to me. I would have never read this book if it hadn't been selected as a community-wide "Big Read" book. However, once I started the book it kept my attention.
Writers such as Wolff obviously enjoy writing about students who are intelligent and love to read and write because implicitly, they are writing about themselves. Some day I hope to find a book about a young person who hates to read and write and who doesn't have the advantage of being a gifted student. Such a book would be truly a story of overcoming life's challenges and obstacles. Alas, in spite of my own apparent feelings of jealousy of gifted writers such as Wolff hinting at their own youthful talent, I have to acknowledge that this book is skillfully written. The narration crawls up the trunk of the story line while taking frequent excursions out the numerous branches along the way toward a big surprising thud. Then it's a matter of reflection on what sort of person the story's narrator must be to have lived that life.