A fellow writer in the BookShed, William Spencer, made the following comment the other day:
“Never have I encountered so much good writing in the service of an absence of dramatic tension. I’m fed up. I want a main character who is in crisis, who cares so damn deeply that he/she can’t see straight.”
Got me thinking.
Recently, for the first time in a year or so, I read a book that kept me up at night instead of putting me to sleep. And the next morning I finished it when I was meant to be typing for money. I’m still thinking about it. Why?
It was Tobias Wolff’s Old School. The hero is a schoolboy in a private school who wants to win a literary prize. The prize is half an hour in a garden with Hemingway. The hero finds himself unable to write and steals an old story from a student at the girl’s school next door. He steals it because it is more true to his life than anything he has ever been able to write himself. His time at school has been spent in trying to create the impression that he comes from the same background as his peers. He is, in fact, a scholarship student with troubled and relatively poor parents. He is a liar who wants be a writer. He is starting to realize that to achieve this end, he will have to be truthful. Stealing the story is the most honest thing he’s ever done.
Why is it a page turner? The hero is trying to find something nebulous. Himself. Mysteries, granted, are set up. Why did the Dean, reported to know Hemingway personally, resign on the day of the hero’s expulsion? Will the hero ever manage to live in the world as himself?
The mysteries are unravelled. (Spoilers ahead) The Dean didn’t know Hemingway. He just allowed the boys to perpetrate the impression that he did. This grew. In the end he couldn’t live with the lie he had allowed. (A subplot that thematically mirrors the main plot) And the hero? Well, he wrote the book. A fiction. Which fills in the gaps between two pieces of great non-fiction: This Boy’s Life and In Pharaoh’s army. Taken together, they are an extraordinary portrait of a man called Tobias Wolff. They make the point that life is richer and more complicated than the average well constructed best seller would have us believe. Old School, by the fact that it was written, demonstrates that the hero of Old School now lives at ease with his roots. Its existence is the answer to its own dramatic question.
I suppose my position is this. As a television hack, I buy everything Bill says. As a reader, I’m not so sure. Because often that moment where someone thought: I have to up the jeopardy, make the worst thing happen, is also the moment I go: I don’t believe you.
On the other hand, the stakes in Old School are high. Tobias Wolff could have become a conman like his father. What’s at stake in Old School is the quality of a man’s life.
But why is it a great book?
My mother would have said: “Because he writes so well.”