Lies and Secrets among the Teenage Writers for Whom the Bell Tolls; Books TOBIAS WOLFF Old School (Bloomsbury, Pounds 7.99)

Article excerpt

Byline: by Lorne Jackson

CERTAIN dangers arise from reading too many novels.

Frazzled eye-sight.

A dreamy disposition, leading to the inability to interact with the real world.

Worst of all, individual books start dissolving into one big fiction.

Imaginary characters, stroppy authors and rampaging themes constantly invade one another's territory.

Case in point: Last week I reviewed the oeuvre of Ayn Rand, a right-wing hack whose books are immensely popular in the States.

This week I picked up Old School, a novel about an elite boys' public school in 1960s America.

The lads' passion for fine writing is fired by the headmaster's decision to invite a famous author to visit the school each semester.

One term, the scribbler chosen just happens to be... Ayn Rand.

And what a shrieking, shrewish shark of a harpy she proves to be, scoffing at weaklings, promoting her own work relentlessly, chain-smoking like Humphrey Bogart.

The unnamed protagonist of Old School had previously fallen in love with her work.

But he soon realises that Rand doesn't produce literature.

She merely pumps out propaganda supporting her own extreme views.

Bloated by bombast, her characters' biggest failing is that they have no failings.

There is no truth to anything she says or writes.

However, the struggle for honesty is exactly what Old School focuses on.

The boy at the heart of the novel knows he is a fake.

During his time at the school he has managed to create a false impression of himself as an adventurous lad from an affluent family.

In reality his home life is squalid and impoverished.

His father also happens to be Jewish, a fact he doesn't reveal to his class mates, for fear of becoming isolated.

Even the discovery that his room mate is Jewish - and also hiding the fact - doesn't make him any more inclined to reveal himself. …