Preparing myself for the one ride on the indoor trainer I’ve done so far this winter (mentioned in yesterday’s post), I went to the library to get an audiobook to listen to while I pedal. I picked up Tobias Wolff’s Old School, which I’d read an excerpt of a while back in the New Yorker, and which has stuck with me all this time. Alas, it didn’t make riding on the trainer any easier — I was hoping I would get caught up in the story and forget I was pedaling, but no such luck — but it has been an excellent book to listen to. I’ve taken it with me to listen to in the car a couple of times now and am about halfway through.
It’s hard for me to separate what I’m liking about the book and what I’m liking about the reader and having the book read to me; I didn’t like the reader’s attempts at a southern accent all that much, but otherwise he’s done such a good job I’m finding myself laughing out loud as I’m driving along, something I rarely do when I’m reading, rather than listening to, a book. I often respond more emotionally to books I’m listening to as opposed to books I’m reading, and I’ve decided I must keep up the habit of listening to audiobooks, a habit I dropped when I stopped doing my ridiculously long commute of a couple years ago. I find it troubling that I have a stronger response to audiobooks than regular books, since that makes it seem like my response to regular books is weak, and I wonder what this says about me. But I suppose there’s nothing to do about it except listen to audiobooks regularly.
In the novel, Wolff’s first person narrator describes life in a boarding school, and at least for the narrator and his friends, literature and writing are very important. The school has a regularly-held contest where a famous writer comes to campus, reads student fiction or poetry, and selects a winner; that winner then gets to have a private audience with the famous writer. So far, the school has held two contests; for the first one, Robert Frost came to campus, and for the second, Ayn Rand.
What I love about the novel is the humor with which these visits and all the excitement they provoke are described. The narrator’s voice is wonderfully well-done, very sympathetic to his boyhood naivete and earnestness, but also able from the adult perspective to point out how funny he could be — how funny all the students could be. With each author’s visit there’s a set-piece where the author gives a speech or does a reading and the students and teachers challenge him or her and the authors talk back in a characteristic manner, Frost waxing eloquent about the value of poetic form, and Rand getting huffy and haughty and insisting that the best American novels ever are The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged.
And the boys’ attempts at writing are funny — I don’t mean that in a mean way, but they are typical productions of adolescents who take themselves very seriously. The boy who wins the Robert Frost contest writes a poem in a very earnest Frost-like manner, but apparently it’s so bad Frost thinks it’s a send-up of his style and chooses it as the winner because he thinks the boy is brave for making fun of him. When the narrator finds out that Ayn Rand will be visiting campus he reads The Fountainhead and becomes a convert, looking with contempt at the silly, self-sacrificing, weak people surrounding him who so foolishly fail to appreciate the value of selfishness. If you’ve ever gone through an Ayn Rand phase, you will find this section hysterically funny and just a little bit painful.
And I’m only halfway through the book. I’ll be sure to report back on the pleasures to be found in the second half.