Old School

by Tobias Wolff (Knopf), appearing as part of the Portland Arts & Lectures Series, Tuesday December 2, Schnitzer Hall, SW Main & Broadway, 227-2583, 7:30 pm, $24

T obias Wolff has a note in the beginning of his first novel, Old School, reading, "For my teachers." His book is an ode to those who taught him how to write, whether it be a fictitious professor from the story, or Hemingway. Wolff is known for his short stories, and even more so for his memoirs, This Boy's Life, and In Pharaoh's Army, so it's fitting that his first novel bears some resemblance to Wolff's own life, and echoes a memoir.

But this book is fiction, its unnamed narrator a student at a prestigious, private East Coast boarding school. He's of lower class background, and half-Jewish (something he's only recently become aware of) and so does not entirely fit in with his waspy school chums. The majority of the book deals with three visiting writers to campus, and the writing contest that each visit brings. Boys submit stories that are chosen by the visiting writer. If chosen, the winner receives a private audience with the writer. Though the first two writers cause a stir--Robert Frost and Ayn Rand--neither causes the commotion of the third, an icon of 20th century American literature.

Wolff himself has become an integral part of American lit in the second half of the century, helping to hold America's waning interest in the short story. He's a writer of such skill--and ease of hand--that it seems to matter little what his subject is, or even what genre he's writing in.

Early in the story, the narrator wonders of his teachers, "How did they command such deference--English Teachers?" He gets to the heart of the answer a few sentences later when he says, "Without pandering to your presumed desire to identify with the hero of a story, they made you feel that what mattered to the writer had consequence for you, too."

By adding multiple layers to the book's primary conflict--a writing contest that reveals the deceptions we all use, for various reasons, throughout our daily lives-- Mr. Wolff makes sure there's something there that matters for the reader. M. WILLIAM HELFRICH

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