The most important thing to realize about this novel is that this is a story for people who either write themselves or have at least thought about writing at some moment in their life, which is fortunate because I don’t know many avid fiction readers who haven’t entertained such a notion at one point.
Point being, Tobias Wolff is a writer’s writer, as one of my friends put it. I thoroughly enjoyed the majority of this book about a young man sent to an all boys private school. He has many secrets he keeps, none of which are horrid to an adult but would perhaps be so to a child.
One of the great joys of attending this school is that several times throughout the year a major contemporary writer visits to take a private audience with the winner a short story competition. The writer chooses the winner himself or herself and all students are free to enter.
Our narrator, of course, desperately wants to meet Robert Frost, then Ayn Rand, and then, finally, his hero, Earnest Hemingway. I thoroughly enjoyed the characterization of these three writers as they made speaking appearances within the novel and all three grossly misunderstood an important aspect of the winning story. I won’t reveal whom our narrator gets to meet out of these three influential writers, but I will say that on his quest he finally discovers the most important aspect of any writer who amounts to anything, and that is to be true to yourself.
How he handles this insight is, of course, quite interesting to read and true to life for someone his age.
The only portion of the novel I found troubling was a hurried ending concerning our narrator and an oddly placed aside on a minor character that took nearly twenty pages. Again, however, since this is a book for writers that I believe teaches us many lessons on craft and introspection, I contemplated this aside and finally came to several conclusions that could serve as an explanation. I decided it was meant to illustrate that even the smallest of lines in a book can influence the entire plot. Either that, or Wolff was fighting tradition by placing the aside in a spot usually reserved for the main character, thus making us reconsider what we consider proper form and impact. Or, finally, Wolff simply wanted us to know the story on this particular character and stuck it in where it would be least distracting.
I literally had a great deal of trouble putting this book down when other duties arose and I can’t recommend it highly enough, especially if you are a writer fighting to find yourself.