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Old School

Written by Tobias Wolff

Old School
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Category: Fiction - Literary; Fiction - Coming Of Age; Fiction - Family Life - General
Imprint: Vintage
Format: Trade Paperback
Pub Date: August 2004
Price: $15.95
Can. Price: $21.95
ISBN: 978-0-375-70149-8 (0-375-70149-4)
Pages: 208

Finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction
Booklist Editor's Choice for Young Adults

The author of the genre-defining memoir This Boy’s Life, the PEN/Faulkner Award–winning novella The Barracks Thief, and short stories acclaimed as modern classics, Tobias Wolff now gives us his first novel.

Determined to fit in at his New England prep school, the narrator has learned to mimic the bearing and manners of his adoptive tribe while concealing as much as possible about himself. His final year, however, unravels everything he’s achieved, and steers his destiny in directions no one could have predicted.

The school’s mystique is rooted in Literature, and for many boys this becomes an obsession, editing the review and competing for the attention of visiting writers whose fame helps to perpetuate the tradition. Robert Frost, soon to appear at JFK’s inauguration, is far less controversial than the next visitor, Ayn Rand. But the final guest is one whose blessing a young writer would do almost anything to gain.

No one writes more astutely than Wolff about the process by which character is formed, and here he illuminates the irresistible power, even the violence, of the self-creative urge. Resonant in ways at once contemporary and timeless, Old School is a masterful achievement by one of the finest writers of our time.

“It is interesting that so modest, so resolutely un-self-aggrandizing a writer as Wolff should be so adept at capturing the nuances of authorial vanity . . . [The novel’ s] point, which is that telling the truth in fiction—or, more generally, in writing—is both logically impossible and morally essential . . . mirrors Wolff’s own passionate ambivalence about the craft he has practiced so long and so well.” —A. O. Scott, The New York Times Book Review
“Ingenious . . . A very fine novel, a deft tour de force that is not only strangely exciting, but that, by its end, achieves a real profundity.” —Katherine A. Powers, The Boston Sunday Globe

“Short yet bottomlessly provocative. . . Wolff has been writing so well for so long that, in a single paragraph, he’ll toss off sketches that a less gifted storyteller might prefer to husband against a rainy day.” —David Kipen, San Francisco Chronicle
“There are ways to lie without saying a word. . . While a main theme here is a writer’s growth, the work’s essential component, the forming of character, gives it a universal appeal. . . Wolff, acclaimed for his short stories and memoirs, has written a marvelous novel with resonance for old and young alike. His storytelling is economical, his prose is elegant, and his meditations are utterly timeless. Some readers may wish to turn from the last page to the first and begin again.” —Keir Graff, Booklist

“A scholarship boy at a New England prep school grapples with literary ambition and insecurity in this lucid, deceptively sedate novel, set in the early 1960s and narrated by the unnamed protagonist from the vantage point of adulthood. . . . this is a sharply ironic novel, in which love of literature is counterbalanced by bitter disappointment (as one character bluntly puts it, “[Writing] just cuts you off and makes you selfish and doesn’t really do any good”). Wolff, an acclaimed short story writer (The Night in Question, etc.) and author of the memoir This Boy’s Life, here offers a delicate, pointed meditation on the treacherous charms of art.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"Artful and moving . . . The novel's appealing and morally complex narrator [withstands] a series of shattering lessons that have as much to do with life as with literature—revelations about honesty and deception, identity and loyalty, betrayal and forgiveness, and about the crucial difference between fiction and falsehood. Not a word is wasted in this spare, brilliant novel about the way that reading changes and forms our lives, and about how one learns to become a writer—and a conscious human being.” —Francine Prose, People

Old School is as much about the shaping of character as it is about the shaping of a writer and exposes the kind of class-based phoniness that Holden Caulfield so famously detested . . . .Wolff again proves himself a writer of the highest order: part storyteller, part philosopher, someone deeply engaged in asking hard questions that take a lifetime to resolve.” —Carmela Ciuraru, Los Angeles Times

"An elegant ode to writers, and to writing, from one of our most exquisite storytellers.” —Adrienne Miller, Esquire.com

"Old School stands up as a sharply drawn, acutely felt novel of moral inquiry . . . . The interesting, vexing drama [puts] readers in the landscape tracked across by writers as different as J. M. Coetzee, Philip Roth, and, going back, Conrad and Hawthorne . . . . What had seemed simple and clearly lit grows ominous and hatched over with shadows . . . . Impossible to counterfeit, [the novel] persuades us, as the best art always does, that however hard we look, there's always more to see.” —Sven Birkerts, The Washington Post Book World

“True, false or somewhere in between, Old School retains Wolff's gift for seamless, minimalist prose, the kind that gives you just enough and not a word more. We come to identify with Wolff's young narrator at first for his aspirations, and then for his shortcomings, because both are so finely observed and realized. And Wolff brilliantly evokes the camaraderie and contradictions of private school life, a place where artistic achievement is celebrated above material wealth, even though your parents don't pay your sky-high tuition bills with their artistic achievement.” —Rob Thomas, Madison Capital Times

“Wolff is a master of reverie, avoiding sentimentality in favor of clarity and the sorts of truths that can sting, particularly in the matter of fathers and sons . . . Old School is utterly new, even as it tells a story that draws you in with the warm comfort of its narrator's voice. [It] proceeds as a dream of innocence and experience, but toward the end takes a twist that should not be spoiled. Wolff writes about plagiarism, lies both harmless and ruinous, and the intrusion of the sad realities of too many lives spent in the cocoon of academia. The narrator may come to the conclusion that "Memory is a dream to begin with, and what I had was a dream of memory," but Wolff has created a world whose reality is so vivid, it will break your heart.” —Ken Tucker, The Baltimore Sun

“You never know quite where memory and imagination meet in Old School, and Tobias Wolff has a grand old time toying with your suspicions . . . Wolff gets it right—in terms of tone, nostalgic detail and dramatic effect—about a time in life in which most things go unerringly wrong . . . Every character who appears in the wings is dispassionately described but passionately crafted before he or she leaves the stage, from the secluded, melodramatic young men to the occasional young woman who arrives to grapple with them. Captured with equal eloquence is the devotion to writing, reading and the mysteries and echoes of a writer's life.” —Steve Duin, The Oregonian

"A compact marvel of a book, with its tale of a paradise gained and lost, its study of a young man's emerging character and mind, and its look at the subtlest workings of class-consciousness and prejudice in an idyllic, ideal-driven setting. [Old School] takes as its subject the slippery nature of truth and fiction, honesty and dishonesty, sound judgment and seductive delusion. As such, it couldn't be bettered.” —Michael Upchurch, Seattle Times

"Acute, graceful . . . Tobias Wolff, the admired author of the memoirs This Boy's Life and In Pharaoh's Army, plus several books of short stories, makes his grownup narrator a writer very much like himself and brings him to a complex, loving reconciliation with his old school despite its flaws. Writing, Wolff suggests, can teach you not only a measure of self-knowledge but also the ability to open yourself to an imperfect world.” —Christopher Porterfield, Time

“Rendered with vivid sympathy . . . charm and astuteness . . . Wolff adds unexpected, affecting twists to each transgression and consequence . . . A fine offering, manly in spirit and style . . . Wolff displays exceptional skill in capturing the small sights and sensations that evoke the whole rarefied world he's taking us back to.” —Thomas Mallon, The Atlantic Monthly

"Engaging, often hilarious . . . Wolff is so vivid and loving in his evocation of this lost world that the book feels not like a eulogy but a resuscitation. The book lays out complex plotlines and treats profound themes. Surprising apposite twists and turns enliven the topography of this fiction about secrecy, shame, class, and corruption. And this is a piece of fiction, planned and plotted to the breaking point. Things happen, secrets are revealed, people change. The real satisfaction in this deeply satisfying book, however, comes from its main character, literature.” —Alec Solomita, New York Sun

“This slender, exquisitely written novel marries the virtues of the two genres for which Wolff has become famous: Old School boasts both the economy and intensity of a great short story and the strong point of view of a memoir . . . In this stylistically restrained but emotionally devastating book, every sentence is nailed down with rare and terrific precision.” —Entertainment Weekly

“Wolff’s new novel [is] a compact, beguiling meditation on lost youth and artistic aspiration . . . Old School could have been ersatz Salinger, or a less mawkish Dead Poets Society. But Wolff is too experienced to take shortcuts. Instead, he throws several curveballs that pleasantly undermine our expectations. His prose, as usual, is beautifully restrained, allowing the narrative to glide along as it celebrates the art of storytelling.” —Ariel Gonzalez, The Miami Herald

"Excellent . . . While Old School will sparkle most dazzlingly for those who have read [its] literary stars, they are primarily important for the responses they evoke from the faculty and boys—particularly our young narrator, whose quest to be an author is passionate but not fully thought-out. With the widely disparate personalities of the visiting writers, Wolff masterfully exhibits not only the literary but also the political atmosphere of the early '60s through the eyes of a boy who is isolated from it but whose generation will soon inherit it. And, with equal mastery, explores the pains and triumphs of finding one's own voice within the dynamic chorus of teachers, relatives, heroes and peers.” —Thomas Haley, Minneapolis Star-Tribune

"Ingenious . . . A very fine novel, a deft tour de force that is not only strangely exciting, but that by its end, achieves a real profundity.” —Katherine A. Powers, The Boston Sunday Globe

“Wolff's novel is most remarkable for its point of view and for its conciseness . . . Through the speaker's wonderfully nuanced recollections, the reader learns as much from what is not stated [as from] what is revealed overtly.” —Mary Whipple, www.mostlyfiction.com

Old School, like so many of Wolff's short stories, has a deceptively simple surface, playing with themes of honor, class, self-discovery. Yet its clean understatement is layered over and over with the wax of irony . . . The kind of deceptively quiet novel that deserves a second, slow reading. An homage to the power of story to move, to awaken and even to transform, it provides its own lovely illustration.” —Tricia Springstubb, The Cleveland Plain Dealer

“A big novel hidden in the structure of a small one, this work is highly recommended.” —David Hellman, Library Journal


WINNER - Booklist Editor's Choice for Young Adults
FINALIST 2004 - PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction


Tobias Wolff lives in Northern California and teaches at Stanford University. He has received the Rea Award for excellence in the short story, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and the PEN/Faulkner Award.