A witty but ultimately rather pointless debut novel about life at a New England boarding school.
It’s the early 1960s, and our unnamed narrator, like Wolff himself (as wonderfully described in his memoir, This Boy’s Life, 1988), is an outsider working his way carefully through an alien world. A poor boy from Baltimore who won a scholarship to an elite prep school up north, the narrator finds acceptance through literature, continually competing with his wealthier classmates to craft the perfect poem, story, or novel, as well as to win a seat on the editorial board of the school journal. One of the traditions at the school is to invite a famous author to address the students, and afterward to meet privately with the one boy who has written the best imitation of the author’s work. Doddering old Robert Frost passes through, just back from Kennedy’s inauguration. Later on, the boys are harangued by the venomous Ayn Rand. But the visit that arouses the most expectation is that of Ernest Hemingway, revered almost as a god by the young adventure seekers, especially since he’s known to have been a WWI comrade of one of the school’s most enigmatic teachers. The narrator succeeds in having his story chosen by Hemingway—a choice that turns out to have disastrous consequences for the boy and the teacher alike. Wolff writes well page by page, and he manages to evoke the supercharged atmosphere of ambitious teenagers cooped up together, but the narrator’s reminiscences have a distant, lifeless quality, as if he cannot, even years after the fact, make any sense of the catastrophe that he brought upon himself.
An odd pastiche that never coheres: storywriter and editor Wolff (Best New American Voices 2000, etc.) offers some nice vignettes that add up to considerably less than the sum of their parts.