Old School by Tobias Wolff – A Book Review

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.

In the Garden of the North American Martyrs by Tobias Wolff – A Book Review

This short story collection from Tobias Wolff is truly just that.  Each story gives you enough of the bare essentials to keep you informed and invested, but they never cross the line into anything remotely superfluous.  Each story feels very much like you’ve entered right into the middle of things and you are there for the climax, but not necessarily the introduction or the conclusion.

While I found this book to be an effective exercise in the art of the short story, I was even more moved by the flaws each character in every story displayed.  Wolff had grand success in getting down to the heart of who and what people are, and that is, in essence, good people that usually display less than admirable traits.  We all have those idiosyncrasies that make us unique and often troubling to our friends and family, and Wolff captures perfectly normal, though certainly troublesome, eccentricities amongst his characters that give us all we need to know about their particular story.

This is a very fast and interesting read, and if you ever wanted to engage in a deep character study in the genre of the short story, this is the collection for you.

This Boy’s Life: A Memoir by Tobias Wolff – A Book Review

This book proved a superb read.  In all seriousness, I cannot recommend this book highly enough.  I do so because, beyond his instinctive narrative style that both captivates and delights, Wolff substantiates the hard and fast rule in life that no matter how difficult of a childhood, one can always improve upon oneself. 

Wolff is currently a professor at Stanford (unless things have changed without my knowledge), earned his B.A. at Oxford and received his M.S. at Stanford as well.  This is incredible considering the childhood he laid out in This Boy’s Life.  Wolff was not a good little boy, to say the least.  He was guilty of lying, stealing, cursing, fighting, forgery, and being rather unattached to anything or anyone but his mother.  He spent several years with an abusive stepfather who, while never out-and-out beating him, put him through psychological trauma just as severe.  It’s amazing this man has become one of America’s greatest writers, but I suppose all great talent was forged in blazing fires.

Wolff does not mince words and, while not a simple read, his memoir it moves very quickly.  He did a masterful job of pacing the narrative so as to make things suspenseful without any truly dramatic plot twists.  After all, this is his real life.  Real life is something that happens, not something that follows a plot line.  Wolff takes his real life and weaves it into a fascinating tale that I couldn’t put down.

The Barracks Thief by Tobias Wolff – A Book Review

Tobias Wolff has written a brief yet powerful tale concerning a young man awaiting deployment to Vietnam.  During his wait at Fort Bragg, a thief emerges, stealing from his fellow troops.  The tale goes on to offer reactions to the thefts, then, in true original Wolff style, switches perspective half way through to give insight into the motivations of the thief himself.  Finally, the book finishes with its original perspective, offering a tight and satisfying conclusion. 

Wolff is an expert at cutting to the heart of his characters, sometimes with very little narrative at all, but his stories always resonate with the reader far after the book has been finished.  The Barracks Thief is no exception, and I believe it is a superb commentary on how most of us feel alone even when surrounded by throngs of people.

The Night In Question by Tobias Wolff – A Book Review

Tobias Wolff has written yet another fantastic collection of short stories with The Night in Question.  Wolff has yet to disappointment me with any of his writings thus far, and since I believe I’ve read all of his works but for one or two, it does not seem as though that may be a possibility.  The Night in Question is a collection dealing with all too human aspects in a series of stories that are unlikely, but certainly not beyond the realm of possibility.  The peculiarity is not the focus in Wolff’s stories; rather, it’s the human reaction to the peculiarities that make his writing rich and enlightening. 

Once again, I recommend virtually any of Wolff’s work with supreme confidence, and The Night in Question is no exception.  My particular favorites in this work were “Flyboys,” “The Life of the Body,” and one that was very unusual for Wolff, “Bullet in the Brain.”

Back In the World by Tobias Wolff – A Book Review

Are you reading Tobias Wolff yet?  Are you?  If not, you should be.   

With Back in the World, Wolff gives us yet another outstanding compilation of short stories.  As always, Wolff’s stories are brief and absolutely potent, offering all the complexities and awkwardness of the human condition in a direct and entrancing manner.  His stories are so rooted in everyday life that when something unusual takes place it reminds us just how odd life can sometimes be in the middle of all the humdrum.  Never does he take us beyond the possibilities of reality, however, and I believe that’s why I so remarkably relate to his work.

I unconditionally recommend all of Wolff’s writings, and Back in the World is certainly not to be excluded.

In Pharaoh’s Army: Memories of the Lost War by Tobias Wolff – A Book Review

I’ve said it before and I’ll keep saying it-if you are not reading Tobias Wolff you are only cheating yourself.  The man simply does not write anything less than absolutely mesmerizing.  I assure you, that is not an exaggeration.

This latest work of Wolff’s I’ve read is called In Pharaoh’s Army.  It is a memoir offering us what lead to his taking part in the Vietnam War, his actual tour, and then the aftermath.  Now having read all of Wolff’s work, I purposefully saved this one for last because I mistakenly believed I’d like it the least. 

I loved this book.  Those of us born after the war have a notion of what Vietnam was like thanks to Hollywood movies, but Wolff gives us a totally different perspective, though no less horrific.  Wolff’s memoir deals with the one thing nobody likes to talk about too much-fear.  He was afraid to go.  He was afraid while he was there.  And when he got back, he was afraid of what he’d become.  Wolff is not a weak man, you’ll gather that from his recounts, he simply does not bother to hide the fact that he was counting down the minutes until he got home, and he just wanted to stay alive.

Each of Wolff’s chapters are like mini-stories, and they each offer the hilarity, absurdity, and sometimes tragedy of his life during that time.  I was surprised at how much of the book is spent leading up to his deployment and then his eventual return.  I’d say only half of the book actually deals with his actual time in Vietnam. 

As I’ve said, I’ve never experienced anything like this book and I completely recommend you read it if you are interested in either Wolff himself, the Vietnam War, or in the form and style of a masterly rendered memoir.

Please, do us both a favor-read something by Tobias Wolff.

Tobias Wolff Has a New Book Out!

I meant to mention this last week, but finally there’s a new Tobias Wolff book out!  Our Story Begins: New and Selected Stories came out March 25th.  Wolff is one of my all-time favorite writers, and I believe him a master of the short story.  He mostly writes stories examining the human condition, and they often run the gauntlet from heart-breaking to out-and-out hilarious.  His style tends to be rather understated and concise, so bear that in mind if you’d like to give him a shot.


I hope you’ll check him out.  He really is worth your time and money.


Click here for a link to Amazon.