Books: Lost in a World That's Book-Besotted and Book-Drunk ; Old School by Tobias Wolff BLOOMSBURY Pounds 12.99 Pounds 11.99 (+ Pounds 2.25 P&P PER ORDER) 0870 800 1122
Glover, Michael, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)
The American short-story writer Tobias Wolff is a miniaturist. His fictions are often just a few pages long, and they are often left hanging in the air, waiting for the reader to have the last word - or, perhaps, the last moral judgement. Will that poor woman with the small child really be left in that awful, sun-blasted pit- stop in the desert with all those leering men and that gun-toting woman who's gone out to shoot a rabbit for supper, or will her boyfriend return with the new alternator in his back pocket and whisk her away? Will the boy and his reckless father ever get through that snow blizzard, or is it white curtains for both of them?
Part of the reader quite wants these stories to continue; they sometimes seem brutally short, almost as if we were being punished by the author for too much presumption, but Wolff holds back in order to let the reader decide. He's not having any swift and easy resolutions because life isn't like that, not in his world. Now he's written his first novel, which is short too and, unlike much of Wolff's work, it's set for the most part in an East Coast boarding school in the 1960s, just after the Kennedy inauguration. The location is unusual - Wolff has tended to spend a good deal of his time writing about the Seattle area until now. That's where he grew up. (See his memoir, This Boy's Life, for the details.) Throughout his work, Wolff has been preoccupied by lying and duplicity. Are lies ever justifiable? Do they work? Can a life be re-invented by lying? Why do people lie in the first place?
Until now Wolff has not tended to introduce real people into his fictions, nor, unlike many writers, has he been over-preoccupied by speculations about the nature and purpose of the writing life. The characters in his stories have tended to be some of life's rawer recruits, unlikely to be re-made by books or the idea of bookishness. This time literature and real literary heroes take centre stage, and his writing style changes to suit the subject matter. It takes on a veneer of brittle elegance, which adds to the tension and sense of self-deception which is so much a part of the mood of this book. Wolff has always been a master of the brutally terse line. …