NEA Big Read
Old School

Old School

by Tobias Wolff

There is a need in us for exactly what literature can give, which is a sense of who we are… a sense of the workings of what we used to call the soul.

Wolff and His Other Works

Perhaps because of the prominence of Tobias Wolff's memoirs and short stories, when Old School appeared in 2003, many assumed that it was his first extended work of fiction. In fact, it was his third. Wolff's first novel, and first book, was a Vietnam story, published in 1975, called Ugly Rumours. As the spelling would suggest, it appeared in England (and only in England). While he has not made a concerted effort to erase all traces of its existence, Wolff does not include it in listings of his published works. His second book-length work of fiction was the novella The Barracks Thief (1984), which won the highly regarded PEN/Faulkner Award. It deals with the intense and ultimately explosive relationships among servicemen in the shadow of war, specifically three soldiers guarding an ammunition dump at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, as they wait to be sent to Vietnam.

The work for which Wolff is best known is his first memoir, This Boy's Life (1989). Glowing reviews in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times Book Review, San Francisco Chronicle, and elsewhere praised the beauty and clarity of its style, along with its unforgettable description of character and incident. While less well known, In Pharaoh's Army (1994), Wolff's account of his experiences in Vietnam, is, like the earlier work, esteemed for its memorable scenes and for the author's determination to describe his personality and actions with scrupulous honesty.

For many readers, the core of Wolff's achievement is his short stories, which have been collected so far in four volumes—In the Garden of the North American Martyrs (1981), Back in the World (1985), The Night in Question (1996), and Our Story Begins: New and Selected Stories (2008). In story after story, Wolff presents his characters and their relationships—with spouses, children, siblings, and strangers—with a scrutiny that is always unflinching and uncompromising, but never uncompassionate. "The Rich Brother" presents a pair of adult brothers united in animosity, but also by basic qualities that create a much stronger bond. "In the Garden of the North American Martyrs," which examines a self-effacing woman whose hopes have been falsely raised through the insensitivity of others, makes a surprising bid for justice.

Beautifully written without gaudiness or self-indulgence, deeply moving without a trace of sentimentality, Tobias Wolff's work seems poised to hold a permanent place in American literature.

"From this height it was possible to see into the dream that produced the school, not mere English-envy but the yearning for a chivalric world apart from the din of scandal and cheap dispute, the hustles and schemes of modernity itself. As I recognized this dream I also sensed its futility, but so what? I loved my school no less for being gallantly unequal to our appetites—more, if anything."
—The Narrator in Old School

Works by Tobias Wolff

  • In the Garden of the North American Martyrs (1981, stories)
  • The Barracks Thief (1984, novella)
  • Back in the World (1985, stories)
  • This Boy's Life (1989, memoir)
  • In Pharaoh's Army: Memories of the Lost War (1994, memoir)
  • The Night in Question (1996, stories)
  • Old School (2003, novel)
  • Our Story Begins: New and Selected Stories (2008)
NEA Big Read
Get involved with NEA Big Read!
Learn More

© Arts Midwest