Wolff's novel rights wrongs of real life

Times Staff Writer

Tobias Wolff is cracking up a lecture hall full of sleepy Stanford University freshmen before noon on a gray day. He is lanky and balding, with a trim mustache and round, silver-rimmed glasses, the kind of English professor in khakis who doesn't let on that he is a marquee literary name, the author of the seminal 1989 memoir "This Boy's Life."

Instead, Wolff, 58, rifles through his handwritten notes on yellow legal paper, professes to be confused by the course readings and keeps more than 150 undergraduates awake with references to his kids, Charlie Parker and a cow jumping over the moon. Then he repeats a dis his son made about his slim new novel -- a book with "7th-grade margins" -- and deftly connects the dots back to the subject at hand, the riddles and paradoxes of the 2,500-year-old Chinese philosophical text "Chuang Tzu."

Wolff is a storyteller, a writer who forges unlikely connections, like the ones that permeate his latest work, "Old School."

His new book, just out from Knopf, is a work of fiction about an unnamed narrator's struggle to fit in at an elite New England prep school. In "Old School," Wolff blurs the lines between memory and imagination so that, but for his denial, the story could be mistaken for nonfiction. Even the publisher's press material notes that parts of the book "sound autobiographical." And the novel's black-and-white cover photo of hundreds of boys in suit jackets seated in a formal dining hall was taken at the prep school that Wolff once attended.

In an interview, Wolff acknowledges that there might be some confusion on whether his new book is a continuation of "This Boy's Life," which chronicled his tornado-dark childhood in the state of Washington in the 1950s.

The novel is imbued with "a certain core of autobiographical truth," Wolff says, drawn from his time as a scholarship student at the elite Hill School in Pottstown, Penn. But he emphasizes: "This is a novel, not a memoir. Still, the concerns that really enliven the book, and that the narrator is obsessed with, are drawn very much from my own sense of things at that age and my own anxieties.... In all honesty, in some ways, I'm as naked in this book, I suppose, as I was in 'This Boy's Life,' but the events themselves are orchestrated in such a way that is fictional."

The novel takes place in the heady days following John F. Kennedy's election to the U.S. presidency, the same period in which Wolff attended boarding school. The school is steeped in literary tradition, a place in which the unnamed narrator -- an aspiring writer and scholarship student -- runs smack into questions of identity and ambition.

Full of bravado, the boys compete in writing competitions for the chance to win a private audience with visiting literary lights including Robert Frost -- who, in fact, did visit Hill while Wolff was a student there (Wolff never got to meet the poet).

With telling detail and lean prose, Wolff lets the events unfurl at the unhurried and stately pace of a yacht on a summer's day -- before the winds take a turn. He captures a Gatsby-esque kind of class distinction, an insular world in which phrases like "ecce homo" (Latin for "behold the man") are dropped, and boys reflect an unspoken esprit de corps by simultaneously breaking out into song. The narrator's voice is true and resonant, and reminiscent of the young Wolff in "This Boy's Life."

Wolff's older brother was the one who first pointed out that this narrator had a familiar voice. (Geoffrey Wolff heads the graduate creative writing program at UC Irvine and is an accomplished writer himself.) "He did mention this little echo to 'This Boy's Life,' " Wolff says. "I thought, 'Oh, that's right.' It didn't bother me at all.... Characters in certain stories of mine tell lies and live with the consequences, and there's certainly some of that going on in the novel as well."

A hunger for memoirs

"This Boy's Life" is a work of dark and comic nonfiction that reads like a novel. The book is credited with igniting a hunger for other narrative memoirs such as Mary Karr's "The Liars' Club" (Viking) in 1995 and Frank McCourt's "Angela's Ashes" (Scribner) in 1996.

Wolff, who also is known as a short story writer, gained popular acclaim in 1993 when his memoir was made into a movie starring Robert De Niro and introducing a young Leonardo DiCaprio. Last week, Wolff flew to Southern California to speak to students at Brentwood School about the memoir, which has been required reading for seniors for years, says Mary Sidell, director of institutional advancement.

His second memoir, published in 1994, was "In Pharaoh's Army," an account of his stint as a Green Beret officer during the Vietnam War.

As Wolff built his reputation as a preeminent literary writer, he kept thinking back to Frost's visit, an event that was as monumental to the boys as Kennedy's election. (Hill School also had literary competitions, but Wolff can't remember whether the winning student got to meet with the visiting writer.)

During Frost's appearance at Hill, Wolff was stuck in the back of the hall and could barely hear as the poet read "The Gift Outright," "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" and other poems. In "Old School," the narrator sits near the front of a chapel for Frost's reading and "caught the gleam of his eye under the heavy white brows. He was watching us watch him."

"One of the things you get to do when you write novels," Wolff says with a laugh, "is go through life again and get it right."

Wolff had forgotten other details of Frost's visit but eventually mulled over the possibility of using the event as a framework to tell a larger story. He began researching and writing the novel shortly after he left a teaching post at Syracuse University to join Stanford's creative writing program in 1997.

He never thought of "Old School" as anything other than a work of fiction. "I used the novel form as an exploration of things that were intensely important to me as a young man," Wolff says, "trying to figure out about myself ... my identity and my class, what kind of life I wanted and with whom, and what kind of world I wanted to live in."

His first novel, "Ugly Rumours," was published in England in 1975, unbeknownst to his current publisher, Wolff says. On his new book's jacket, Knopf mistakenly refers to "Old School" as his first novel. "I was a little abashed at that," Wolff says. "It wasn't their fault. It was mine."

Wolff leaves that novel off his list of published works because "within two or three years of having written it, I couldn't read a word of it without cringing. So I don't call attention to it."

He never is quite sure that he can pull any piece of writing off, Wolff says. Last year, on leave to finish the book in Rome, he told his wife that he wasn't sure that "Old School" was going to work out. "You always say that," she told him.

"You ask yourself harder questions than most people are inclined to ask, in the process of writing something," Wolff says. "Mainly, the question, 'Who cares?' You don't know if anyone is going to care."

Publishers Weekly gave "Old School" its highest rating, a starred review, saying the book "offers a delicate, pointed meditation on the treacherous charms of art."

Wolff still gets letters from young people saying how much "This Boy's Life" meant to them, but he gleefully shows off another kind of note as a badge of honor. A letter written by a parent saying his memoir is "disgusting." "I'm going to frame it!" he says with a chuckle.

Wolff lives with his wife, Catherine, and daughter, Mary Elizabeth, a high school freshman, in the foothills of Palo Alto, where he likes to hike. In his office, he has pictures of his family, including two grown sons who live in New York: Michael, a public high school teacher, and Patrick, a tenor saxophone player.

On the wall are photographs of Wolff with famous writer friends such as the late Raymond Carver and Richard Ford, along with a framed poem written by W.D. Snodgrass. His shelves are filled with books, by Katherine Mansfield, Gish Jen, Dante. In front of his windows, there is a rocking chair.

It is a life that is writerly, one that would make the narrator in "Old School" mad with longing.

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