Sunday Pages: "Bullet in the Brain"
A short story by Tobias Wolff
Fifteen or so years ago, when the kids were small, I took a job teaching creative writing at Manhattanville, a charming little college in Purchase, New York. The class met once a week, on Monday nights for two and a half hours. Because I started in January, in the spring semester, I didn’t even see the campus in the daylight until April. It slowly revealed itself to me in all its vernal glory.
I was an unorthodox choice. I’d never taught a college class before. Aside from a few lectures as a teaching assistant in undergrad, I’d never taught any class before. And I’d only ever taken one class in creative writing, during my lone semester “abroad” at NYU. Plus, I don’t have an MFA, which disqualifies me from most college teaching gigs. But I did have one novel out and another on the way, and the head of the department, God bless him, felt that experience as a working fiction writer was just as good if not better than an advanced degree when it came to connecting with freshmen and sophomores. The other adjuncts were like me: part-timers with books out, the most notable being Jonathan Tropper, back in his novelist days, before he was the showrunner for Banshee. The department was, for sure, an interesting assemblage of creative people.
As I put together my syllabus, I realized that, as a novelist, my knowledge of and familiarity with short stories was shit. Obviously I can write short pieces—I do it here all the time—and I can write fiction. But short works of fiction are a different breed of cat. It’s like a starter and a closer in baseball: they are both pitchers, yes, with the same overall objective, but the mindset and the toolbox are wildly divergent. (Hemingway: “They can’t yank a novelist like they can a pitcher. A novelist has to go the full nine, even if it kills him.”)
Generally, I’m not wild about the form. Most short stories do nothing for me. They lack the worldmaking breadth and the more leisurely pace of the novel, while also managing to miss the tight economy and emotional wallop of a poem. For me, short stories exist in no man’s land. They usually leave me cold.
I sent word to my writer friends that I needed good short stories for the class. Ben Loory—that rare short story writer whose short stories I do like; I featured his work on these pages in 2021—suggested “Bullet in the Brain,” by Tobias Wolff. I found it, I read it, and it made me cry. Not just cry—weep. And not just that one time—every time I read it, including this weekend.
“Bullet in the Brain” originally ran in the New Yorker, the gold standard of such things, in September of 1995. (You can read the whole thing here if you like, before proceeding with the rest of my spoiler-alert analysis.) And it’s a short story: not quite 2000 words—shorter than most of the pieces I write at PREVAIL. And yet in that limited length, Wolff does so much.
On the surface, the story is about a bank robbery gone wrong. A book critic—one notorious for “the weary, elegant savagery with which he dispatche[s] almost everything he review[s]”—is at said bank, applying his wearily savage elegance to the “crybaby” woman in front of him who is complaining about the teller, when he finds himself in the midst of a stick-up.
But here’s the twist: Anders (that’s his name—Anders) is such a consummate critic that he cannot separate the critic from the rest of himself—even when his life literally depends on it. The curmudgeonly ways of the job have taken him over, and he is, functionally, the world’s most pretentious zombie. The bank robbers are so cliché, their criminal banter so derivative, that even at gunpoint, he can’t help but laugh at them. He simply cannot turn off the savagery. He cannot not be a critic. And the man with the gun does not like this:
“Fuck with me again, you’re history. Capiche?"
Anders burst our laughing. He covered his mouth with both hands and said, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” then snorted helplessly through his fingers and said, “Capiche—oh, God, capiche,” and at that the man with the pistol raised the pistol and shot Anders right in the head.
In the movies, people generally behave during bank robberies. But in real life, I expect that some amount of nervous tittering would take place. I’m not sure how I would react, if I were in Anders’s shoes. Would I laugh, too? Laughter, after all, is a way of releasing tension.
That action occupies two thirds of the story. And yet it’s not about a bank robbery at all, or about the murder committed during the job. On a “meta” level, meanwhile, we have a short story by a writer of fiction about the violent murder of a cruel literary critic—a revenge tale! But it’s not about that, either.
The story continues:
The bullet smashed Anders’ skull and ploughed through his brain and exited behind his right ear, scattering shards of bone into the cerebral cortex, the corpus callosum, back toward the basal ganglia, and down into the thalamus. But before all this occurred, the first appearance of the bullet in the cerebrum set off a crackling chain of ion transports and neurotransmissions. Because of their peculiar origin these traced a peculiar patter, flukishly calling to life a summer afternoon some forty years past, and long since lost to memory. After striking the cranium the bullet was moving at 900 feet per second, a pathetically sluggish, glacial pace compared to the synaptic lighting that flashed around it. Once in the brain, that is, the bullet came under the mediation of brain time, which gave Anders plenty of leisure to contemplate the scene that, in a phrase he would have abhorred, “passed before his eyes.”
We expect to read about what passed before his eyes, but here Wolff takes an unexpected detour. He first tells us about the things Anders does not remember, in the dying critic’s last moments alive: his first girlfriend, his wife, his daughter, his unhappy mother, the go-to poems that give him “shivers at will,” the brilliant professor who influenced him the most, “the surprise of seeing a college classmate’s name on the jacket of a novel not long after they graduated, or the respect he had felt after reading the book.”
And, tragically, this: “He does not remember the pleasure of giving respect.” I would never think of respect-giving as something that generates pleasure, and it would never occur to me to phrase it quite that way, but of course it does. The pleasure of giving respect is the basis for all fandom.
And then we come to the end of the story. This is the “summer afternoon some forty years past” that is, we’re told by our most omnipotent of narrators, “long since lost to memory:”
This is what he remembered. Heat. A baseball field. Yellow grass, the whirr of insects, himself leaning against a tree as the boys of the neighborhood gather for a pickup game. He looks on as the others argue the relative genius of Mantle and Mays. They have been worrying this subject all summer, and it has become tedious to Anders: an oppression, like the heat.
Then the last two boys arrive, Coyle and a cousin of his from Mississippi. Anders has never met Coyle’s cousin before and will never see him again. He says hi with the rest but takes no further notice of him until they’ve chosen sides and someone asks the cousin what position he wants to play. “Shortstop,” the boy says. “Short’s the best position they is.” Anders turns and looks at him. He wants to hear Coyle’s cousin repeat what he’s just said, but he knows better than to ask. The others will think he’s being a jerk, ragging the kid for his grammar. But that isn’t it, not at all—it’s that Anders is strangely roused, elated, by those final two words, their pure unexpectedness and their music. He takes the field in a trance, repeating them to himself.
The amount of information conveyed in those two paragraphs is enormous. We know the date—the late 50s/early 60s, when Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle were at their apex. We know that Anders doesn’t really give a shit about baseball, but participates anyway. He longs for community with the other kids, but can’t achieve it because he’s not like them. Baseball requires a minimum number of bodies to play, so Anders will be allowed to join, but the other kids stick him in right field, far away from the action. Coyle’s cousin, meanwhile, a stranger from the South, will immediately be inserted at shortstop, where every infield success and failure are magnified. Anders is already on the path to being a critic. He is both knowledgeable and finicky about grammar, and knows better than to do what we assume is his usual know-it-all routine. But he is also, in that moment, pure. He is not the joyless, jaded grump he will become. His heart is not yet worn down by the drudgery of life.
The final paragraph is the part of the story that gives me “shivers at will:”
The bullet is already in the brain; it won’t be outrun forever, or charmed to a halt. In the end it will do its work and leave the troubled skull behind, dragging its comet’s tail of memory and hope and talent and love into the marble hall of commerce. That can’t be helped. But for now Anders can still make time. Time for the shadows to lengthen on the grass, time for the tethered dog to bark at the flying ball, time for the boy in right field to smack his sweat-blackened mitt and softly chant, They is, they is, they is.
No one knows—no one can ever know—what flashes in another person’s mind the instant before they die. The science, the “crackling chain of ion transports and neurotransmissions” that land Anders on that long-lost memory, is covered in the story, but what does that really explain? Why that, of all things? What is Wolff trying to tell us?
Distill Anders to his essence, and what we get is him on the summer day that Coyle’s cousin came to town. The joy, the thrill, the musical pleasure he finds in the juxtaposition of those two words, is everything to him. Not everyone would be moved by those two words. Most people would not even notice. But that is what makes Anders Anders. If the moment is “long since lost to memory” on that fateful day at the bank, so too is his raison d'être. At long last, at the instant before his death, he has recaptured what was lost. He is made whole. Complete.
And that, I think, is why this short story with the violent title moves me to tears. It is a celebration of the small, ineffable things that, taken together, make life worth living: the first sip of hot coffee in the morning, the whiff of honeysuckle from out of nowhere, the way the orange stripe on the wing of the blackbird pops against a field of green after it’s been raining, the pride and joy parents feel when our kids do something clever or cute or kind, the satisfaction in completing a difficult crossword puzzle, the poetical exquisiteness of the “comet’s tail” sentence in the last paragraph of Wolff’s short story (one of the finest pieces of writing you’ll ever encounter in all of literature, it says here), the grace and fluidity of professional dancers Viennese waltzing or NBA players windmill dunking, the simple aural pleasure of two words that don’t usually go together repeated as a mantra on a hot and otherwise forgettable summer day.
On The Five 8, Stephanie Koff reports from the WGA picket lines, and we debut our first game:
Photo credit: Robert. An old bank Building on Treadneedle Street in London.