There's a breath of other classic coming-of-age-at-school tales in Tobias Wolff's absorbing collection of semi-autobiographical short stories, Old School. The careful reader will find hints of A Separate Peace, Catcher in the Rye, even Robert Cormier's The Chocolate War (minus the apocalyptic ending). But though Old School contains the same nuances found in previous schoolboy tales – the longing to fit in; the subtle, cruel jockeying for social position; the minor rebellions against institutional rules – Wolff's brash honesty and beautifully precise writing keep his stories from sinking to the level of imitation.
Taking up where his 1989 breakthrough memoir (and 1993 De Niro-DiCaprio film) This Boy's Life left off, Old School follows the unnamed narrator to a chichi boarding school, similar to the one Wolff attended, thanks to the transcripts and letters of recommendation he successfully forged at Life's end. But there the similarities between the two books end. The characters who so painfully dominated Life – Wolff's menacing stepfather and confused mother – are absent from Old School.Instead, the book is peopled by classmates, teachers, and famous literary figures from the appallingly callous Ayn Rand to the cocksure Ernest Hemingway.
It's from these last characters that Old School takes its structure, focusing on a competition that allowed Hill School boys to submit a piece of writing in hopes of winning a critique from and private audience with noted authors. Though this may seem a rather dry and unsexy leitmotif, in Wolff's talented hands the contest is every bit as riveting as a sports novel's Big Game. As the narrator turns in story after story, his yearning for the benediction of the writers he idolizes is magnificently harrowing to read. And for those readers who figuratively hold his hand all the way to the end of the book, the final payoff has a ring of pleasingly poetic justice.