One of my absolute favorite short stories is Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain.” At only four pages, it is masterful in its execution and brevity. Incidentally, both of those descriptions could be construed as puns. If you want to know what I’m talking about, I suggest you click this *link* and read “Bullet in the Brain.” The process will take five minutes, and your life will drastically improve. What weight loss program can boast that kind of result?
Okay, fine. What does this have to do with a book review? I’m glad you asked. First off, my heavy interest in the science fiction and fantasy genre is a relatively recent development. I’m a lit guy at heart. So, secondly, after a score of reviews in the sci-fi/fantasy realm, I’m returning to my roots this week.
Tobias Wolff is known for both his short stories and his non-fiction essays, but I would like to posit that he should also be recognized for his debut novel Old School. (A quick disclaimer: this novel has nothing to do with the Will Ferrell movie of the same name.)
As is often my instinctive practice nowadays when I’m reading a novel I enjoy, I’m usually also thinking about elements of craft and how an author is fruitfully employing those elements within the writing. In the case of Old School, I recommend it to anyone who is writing a novel in the first person point-of-view. In fact, I wish—with a tang of lament—that someone had recommended this novel to me before I drafted my first person point-of-view manuscript.
In no small percentage of first person narratives, the “I” pronoun can rapidly become redundant, repetitive, and even obtrusive as every observation, feeling, and action is “I saw this. I’m feeling that. I went here.” It’s tough to avoid. Toughness notwithstanding, Wolff has soared in his delivery. While I never lost sight of the first-person speaker, whole pages transpired without the “I” pronoun popping up to constantly remind me who the story is about.
Wolff hides the “I” pronoun so successfully that the narrator, the story’s protagonist, is never even named—gasp! Furthermore, this absence not without reason since through indirect means, the reader discovers that the narrator is intentionally attempting to hide himself and his past at an all boys’ boarding school where he is trying to forge a new identity by earning the admiration and respect of his peers through his literary prowess. There’s a subtle interplay of fact and fiction (is there any difference?) and Wolff cleverly blurs the lines.
This novel was especially dear to my proclivities since it is a lit book written about lit. Robert Frost, Ayn Rand, and Ernest Hemingway all make extended cameos, and Wolff’s rendering of their personalities (so far as I can ascertain) is so spot-on it’s hysterical. No, really. I couldn’t wait to vividly experience the earthy philosophy and decisive declarations of Frost, the pompous and condescending egotism of Ayn Rand, and the rambling and somehow directive tangents of a drunken Hemingway.
If you’ve read these authors, you’ll know what I’m talking about. And if you want to know another noteworthy author, check out Tobias Wolff. And darnit, read “Bullet in the Brain” already! 3.5/5 stars.