One Story Magazine recently listed their top ten favorite short stories, along with an additional twenty-six stories to flush out the “long list.” Tobias Wolff’s Bullet in the Brain made the long list. I had first read this story at Rosemont Writers Retreat a few years ago, where it was taught and discussed. I re-read it this weekend and enjoyed it just as much.
The story starts off in a bank, just before closing, where a long line of disgruntled customers has formed. Wolff introduces his main character here:
He was never in the best of tempers anyway, Anders – a book critic known for the weary, elegant savagery with which he dispatched almost everything he reviewed.
This man is peckish, and as the women in the tellers’ line complain about the wait, he ridicules them like the sarcastic critic he has become at this point in life.
Moments later, two masked men burst through the doors intent on robbing the bank. Though these men are brandishing weapons and have just roughed up the security guard, Anders can’t help but be amused at their language, which is right out of the gangster movies.
“Hey! Bright boy! Did I tell you to talk?”
“No,” Anders said.
“Then shut your trap.”
“Did you hear that?” Anders said. “‘Bright boy.’ Right out of The Killers.”
At this point, the masked man approaches Anders and attempts to scare him into silence, and he uses phrases from more gangster movies.
“Fuck with me again, you’re history, Capiche?”
Anders burst out laughing.
This is Anders’s demise. He is shot in the head, and Wolff describes the physical repercussions in the most clinical way.
The rest of the story is a beautifully rendered recollection of what Anders is not thinking about, and finally what he is thinking about, as his life drains out of him. I loved how Wolff starts this section:
It is worth noting what Anders did not remember, given what he did recall.
Wolff lists out a full page of events in Anders life that he does not recall; his first love, his wife and daughter, seeing a woman commit suicide, his years of work. The list goes on extensively before Wolff writes:
This is what he remembered.
Wolff then describes a hot summer day when Anders was standing in the outfield playing baseball with neighborhood kids. One kid’s cousin, visiting from the south, utters the following:
“Shortstop, the boy says. “Short’s the best they is.”
Anders is strangely roused, elated, by those final two words, their pure unexpectedness and their music.
We come to see that Anders whole life has been about language and words, and that this love was both the high point of his life and the cause of his death.
In the first part of this story, Wolff balances the tension and the humor very well. It’s a terrifying situation yet it’s hard not to laugh as Anders guffaws at the gangster sayings. Anders is literally digging himself a grave with each sarcastic comment. But in the second half, as we review his life (even as he doesn’t) and see him on the baseball field as a kid, we come to understand where he came from and how he experienced great joy form language.
One Note: While I like this story, I personally believe Tobias Wolff’s Leviathan is a better story. If you are getting his book out to read Bullet in the Brain, read Leviathan also.