Old School (novel)
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Cover of Old School
The book is narrated by a school senior ("sixth former" in prep-school vernacular) at an (unnamed) elite boarding school in the northeastern United States in 1960-61. It is possible to infer Pennsylvania's The Hill School, which Wolff attended, at least partially inspired the setting for the novel. Further evidence of this can also be inferred from the fact that Hill's dining hall is the photograph depicted on the novel's cover. The narrator aspires to be a writer, and the school he attends is an embodiment of a certain kind of academic fantasy, where non-English teachers (teachers are "masters" here) "floated at the fringe of [the English masters'] circle, as if warming themselves at a fire", and literature is still believed to hold the key to the soul. Robert Frost, Ayn Rand, and Ernest Hemingway, with each of whom the narrator crosses paths, appear in the story, dispensing wisdom, pseudo-wisdom, vitriol and nonsense in varying degrees. Aside from its service as a sort of literary fantasy camp, the novel addresses issues of class, privilege and ethnic identity in a manner subtle enough to mask their importance to the story.
The New York Times published two reviews of the book. Michiko Kakutani wrote (12 December 2003) that Wolff, best known for short stories and memoirs, "seems thoroughly ill at ease with the long-distance form of the novel: his book feels overstuffed and undernourished at the same time." A.O. Scott's review (23 November 2003) was more positive, characterizing Wolff as a "modest and resolutely un-self-aggrandizing" writer and "no mean caricaturist. Well, maybe a little mean."
The book also features an editorial curiosity: there are no quotation marks indicating speech. This detail prompted the following sudden splash of ire from Thomas Mallon, reviewing the novel (otherwise favorably) in The Atlantic Monthly (2 December 2003): "And let me say this, above all, Mr. Wolff: the lack of quotation marks around the dialogue is a ridiculous piece of postmodern pretentiousness that has no place in your book."
- Wolff, Tobias (2003). Old School. New York: Knopf.