New Conversation about Old School

Common Grounds book group gathered on a snowy Saturday to wander the halls of Tobias Wolff’s debut novel, Old School. Christa and Michael both liked the selection and wished more readers had braved the weather to discuss it.

Michael’s “copy” of the book was especially interesting to the other attendees. He brought Old School loaded on his Kindle. Christa and I were fascinated with the electronic device and Christa made a joke about keeping her coffee cup away from the “e-book”.

Michael easily kept up with Christa and I as we flipped through pages looking for those scenes that were perfect for discussion. One of the most intriguing aspects of the Old School is the narrator. We all mentioned how long it took before we realized we didn’t know the narrator’s name. This prompted another discussion involving the narrator’s understanding of his own identity. When does he understand who he really is? These two readers felt that the unnamed narrator didn’t become comfortable with himself until he was long out of school and far after his encounter with Susan, a fellow writer from a neighboring girls’ school.

Michael pointed out that our narrator, for all his attempts to be a writer of fiction, proves himself to be an exceptionally adept writer of nonfiction when he wins a prize for it.

We all marveled and chuckled over Wolff’s scenes involving poet Robert Frost, controversial novelist Ayn Rand, and American icon Ernest Hemingway. Wolff is a master mimic and keenly aware of these classic writers’ styles, philosophies, and subject matter. We all admitted to laughing at the scene with Rand. Later, Christa pointed out how all the “great” writers failed to understand the true meaning behind all the student work that had been selected as the best. “They were fooled by a bunch of students, who then bemoaned the fact that they are ‘misunderstood’ by everyone. How typically teenage!”

Our final conversation about the book revolved around the cult of celerity and writers. Michael asked if our society idolizes writers today they way it is depicted in a novel set in the 1960s? We decided this has changed drastically and possibly J.K. Rowling and Stephanie Meyer hold those celebrity places, but for very different reasons that Frost, Hemingway, Rand and others captured the American publicity eye.

For a slim volume of fiction, Old School offers many points to ponder.