”At a certain point I realized you can’t fake your way through life,” Tobias Wolff says, sitting in his house in the hills overlooking Palo Alto, Calif., the Santa Ynez mountains in the distance. A tenured professor at Stanford, the 58-year-old is fit and lean and has a booming voice. He might pass for the career officer he chose not to become after a tour in Vietnam. What Wolff has become instead is a writer of the very first rank, the author of three collections of short stories, an award-winning novella, and now a novel, ”Old School.”
His two memoirs, ”This Boy’s Life” and ”In Pharaoh’s Army,” showed what can be done with nonfiction as a form, with memoirs,” says novelist Robert Stone. ”I think he certainly is among the very best writers of his generation.”
Wolff’s best work, both his fiction and nonfiction, deals with people struggling, sometimes blindly, against the fallout of their pretenses or delusions. Sometimes the results are comic, sometimes tragic. In his great short story ”Bullet in the Brain,” a smug middle-aged book critic cannot contain his giggling contempt for the hackneyed language of a brutal bank robber, and it’s only after he’s shot in the head, during his dying thoughts, as the bullet traverses his skull, that the layers of bitterness are peeled back to reveal the pure, innocent essence of a mortally wounded misanthrope. In ”This Boy’s Life,” Wolff’s 1989 breakthrough account of his own picaresque boyhood, young Tobias follows the lead of his absent con-artist father and rainbow-chasing mother and attempts to transform himself into the heroic (albeit fictional) boy that deep down he believes himself to be. And in Wolff’s new novel, ”Old School,” an ambitious scholarship boy at an elite prep school, desperate to succeed, takes emulation to disastrous ends.
”I think that the interesting thing about really false people,” Wolff says, ”is the extent to which they can be unaware of their own falsity and persuade themselves through one dodge or another that they’re being truthful, when they’re not.”
Wolff would know. The power of ”This Boy’s Life” stems from its author’s willingness to expose his own falseness — the extravagant lengths to which the young Tobias went in his effort to transform himself into someone more heroic. Abandoned by his father, tagging along with his mother as she fled a series of abusive men, Wolff changed his name to Jack, ”after Jack London,” he wrote in the memoir. ”I believed that having his name would charge me with some of the strength and competence inherent in my idea of him…. My father got wind of this and called from Connecticut to demand that I stick to the name he had given me. It was, he said, an old family name. This turned out to be untrue. It just sounded like an old family name, as the furniture he bought at antique stores looked like old family furniture, and as the coat of arms he’d designed for himself looked like the shield of some fierce baron who’d spent his life wallowing in Saracen gore.”
Wolff’s boyhood experiments in self-transformation culminated in his complete fabrication of an application for admission to the Hill School in Pennsylvania. A friend with access to their high school office stole official stationery, envelopes, and blank transcript forms, and over the next couple of nights Wolff transformed himself — on paper, anyway — into the student he knew he should have been.