Tobias Wolff's first novel is the story of a boy who lies his way into literature. The novel may be a new form for Wolff, but lies are an old theme. In his moving memoir, This Boy's Life, he explored his father's compulsive lying and confessed to forging his way into an exclusive prep school. In Pharaoh's Army was his account of service in Vietnam, a big lie of a war. Yet Wolff is generous with un-truth, curious about what we learn about ourselves from the lies we tell, and brave enough to scrutinise his own falsehoods.
Here he deals with the lie "of" fiction - the wincing gap between the words and the writer. Old School is set at a prestigious American boarding school in 1960, the year of Nixon versus Kennedy, which for the boys was no contest at all. "Nixon was a straight arrow and a scold," says our narrator. "We recognised Kennedy; we could still see in him the boy who would have been a favourite here, roguish and literate, with that almost formal insouciance that both enacted and discounted the fact of his class."
But the boys will not admit that class plays any part in their institutional culture. The only snobbery the school admits to is its pride in its literary reputation. Robert Frost's impending visit arouses far more interest among the scribbling pack of pupils than the dawning of their nation's newly idealistic political era. The school hosts lectures by three great writers every year, and each term finds the sixth-formers competing for a prize. This is the year of desperate submissions for Wolff's ambitious protagonist.
When it is announced that Ernest Hemingway will be their guest in the final term, the boys are thrown into a frenzy of testosterone-jostling creativity. Hemingway is their great influence - they even talk like his characters, though in travesty, as if to deny their discipleship: "Today is the day of meatloaf. The meatloaf is swell. It is swell but when it is gone the not-having meatloaf will be tragic and the meatloaf man will not come anymore."
Just as our hero conceals his Jewishness from his friends (a shadow of doubt lingers over his faith in the school's professed meritocracy), he now seeks to write a piece of fiction that will reveal himself as the kind of writer Hemingway would want to meet, rather than the person he is. And he ends up cheating, after a fashion that helps him to see through the posturing of his own writing and that of his friends. The experience is sickening and humiliating but ultimately yields a sense of relief.
For all the disillusionment - both explicit in the plot, and implicit in the novel's political backdrop - Wolff's simple yarn is a reminder that those who gaze deep into dishonesty find greater truths than those who never question the facts. It's what fiction's about, after all.