Bullet in the Brain :: Tobias Wolff

Anders couldn’t get to the bank until just before it closed, so of course the line was endless and he got stuck behind two women whose loud, stupid conversation put him in a murderous temper. 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.

With the line still doubled around the rope, one of the bank tellers stuck a “POSITION CLOSED” sign in her window and walked to the back of the bank, where she leaned against a desk and began to pass the time with a man shuffling papers. The women in front of Anders broke off their conversation and watched the teller with hatred. “Oh, that’s nice,” one of them said. She turned to Anders and added, confident of his accord, “One of those little human touches that keep us coming back for more.”

Anders had conceived his own towering hatred of the teller, but he immediately turned it on the presumptuous crybaby in front of him. “Damned unfair,” he said, “Tragic, really. If their not chopping off the wrong leg, or bombing your ancestral village, they’re closing their positions.”

She stood her ground. “I didn’t say it was tragic,” she said, “I just think it’s a pretty lousy way to treat your customers.”

“Unforgivable,” Anders said, “Heaven will take note.”

She sucked in her cheeks but stared past him and said nothing. Anders saw that the other woman, her friend, was looking in the same direction. And then the tellers stopped what they were doing, and the customers slowly turned, and silence came over the bank. Two man wearing black ski masks and blue business suits were standing to the side of the door. One of them had a pistol pressed against the guard’s neck. The guard’s eyes were closed, and his lips were moving. The other man had a sawed-off shotgun. “Keep your big mouth shut!” the man with the pistol said, though no one had spoken a word. “One of you tellers hits the alarm, you’re all dead meat. Got it?”

The tellers nodded.

“Oh, bravo,” Anders said. “Dead meat.” He turned to the woman in front of him. “Great script, eh? The stern, brass-knuckled poetry of the dangerous classes.”

She looked at him with drowning eyes.

The man with the shotgun pushed the guard to his knees. He handed the shotgun to his partner and yanked the guard’s wrists up behind his back and locked them together with a pair of handcuffs. He toppled him onto the floor with a kick between the shoulder blades. Then he took his shotgun back and went over to the security gate at the end of the counter. He was short and heavy and moved with peculiar slowness, even torper. “Buzz him in,” his partner said. The man with the shotgun opened the gate and sauntered along the line of tellers, handing each of them a Hefty bag. When he came to the empty position he looked over at the man with the pistol, who said, “Whose slot is that?”

Anders watched the teller. She put her hand to her throat and turned to the man she’d been talking to. He nodded. “Mine,” she said.

“Then get your ugly ass in gear and fill that bag.”

“There you go,” Anders said to the woman in front of him. “Justice is done.”

“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.'”

“Please be quiet,” the woman said.

“Hey, you deaf or what?” The man with the pistol walked over to Anders. He poked the weapon into Anders’ gut. “You think I’m playing games?”

“No,” Anders said, but the barrel tickled like a stiff finger and he had to fight back the titters. He did this by making himself stare into the man’s eyes, which were clearly visible behind the holes in the mask: pale blue and rawly red-rimmed. The man’s left eyelid kept twitching. He breathed out a piercing, ammoniac smell that shocked Anders more than anything that had happened, and he was beginning to develop a sense of unease when the man prodded him again with the pistol.

“You like me, bright boy!” he said. “You want to suck my dick!”

“No,” Anders said.

“Then stop looking at me.”

Anders fixed his gaze on the man’s shiny wing-tip shoes.

“Not down there. Up there.” He stuck the pistol under Anders’ chin and pushed it upwards until Anders was looking at the ceiling.

Anders had never paid much attention to that part of the bank, a pompous old building with marble floors and counters and pillars, and gilt scrollwork over the tellers’ cages. The domed ceiling had been decorated with mythological figures whose fleshy, toga-draped ugliness Anders had taken in at a glance years earlier and afterward declined to notice. Now he had no choice but to scrutinize the painter’s work. It was even worse than he remembered, and all of it executed with the utmost gravity. The artist had a few tricks up his sleeve and used them again and again — a certain rosy blush on the underside of the clouds, a coy backwards glance on the faces of the cupids and fauns. The ceiling was crowded with various drama, but the one that caught Anders’ eye was Zeus and Europa — portrayed, in this rendition, as a bull ogling a cow from behind a haystack. To make the cow sexy, the painter had canted her hips suggestively and given her long, droopy eyelashes through which she gazed back at the bull with sultry welcome. The bull wore a smirk and his eyebrows were arched. If there’d been a bubble coming out of his mouth, it would have said, “Hubba hubba.”

“What’s so funny, bright boy?”

“Nothing.”

“You think I’m comical? You think I’m some kind of clown?”

“No.”

“Fuck with me again, you’re history. Capiche?

Anders burst out 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.

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 iron transports and neuro-transmissions. Because of their peculiar origin these traced a peculiar pattern, flukishly calling into 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 lightning 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.”

It is worth noting what Anders did not remember, given what he did remember. He did not remember his first lover, Sherry, or what he had most madly loved about her, before it came to irritate him–her unembarrassed carnality, and especially the cordial way she had with his unit, which she called Mr. Mole, as in, “Uh-oh, looks like Mr. Mole wants to play,” and, “let’s hide Mr. Mole!” Anders did not remember his wife, whom he had also loved before she exhausted him with her predictability, or his daughter, now a sullen professor of economics at Dartmouth. He did not remember standing just outside his daughter’s door as she lectured her bear about his naughtiness and described the truly appalling punishment Paws would receive unless he changed his ways. He did not remember a single line of the hundreds of poems he committed to memory in his youth so that he could give himself the shivers at will–not “Silent, upon a peak in Darien,” or “My God, I heard this day,” or “All my pretty ones? Did you say all? O hell-kite! All?” None of these did he remember; not one. Anders did not remember his dying mother saying of his father, “I should have stabbed him in his sleep.”

He did not remember Professor Josephs telling his class how Athenian prisoners in Sicily had been released if they could recite Aeschylus, and then reciting Aeschylus himself, right there, in the Greek. Anders did not remember how his eyes had burned at those sounds. He did not remember 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. He did not remember the pleasure of giving respect.

Nor did Anders remember seeing a woman leap to her death from the building opposite his own just days after his daughter was born. He did not remember shouting, “Lord have mercy!” He did not remember deliberately crashing his father’s car into a tree, or having his ribs kicked in by three policemen at an anti-war rally, or waking himself up with laughter. He did not remember when he began to regard the heap of books on his desk with boredom and dread, or when he grew angry at writers for writing them. He did not remember when everything began to remind him of something else.

This is what Anders 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 tedius 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 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 or 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.

[Check out this quality short film adaptation of Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain,” starring Dean Winters (HBO’s Oz) and Tom Noonan (Heat)!]

27 thoughts on “Bullet in the Brain :: Tobias Wolff

  1. As Anders gave himself shivers by reciting poetry, so I give myself shivers reading the last paragraph of this story. I laugh at Anders’ derisive wit, and cry to see how a boy whose experiences were so genuine and urgent became such a jaded, derisive man.

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  5. I found the character’s behaviour when confronted with a gun in his gut unbelievable, but the end-game description was fantastic and artful in the way Ander’s life could be summed up.

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  11. Does one see the subtle way Tobias refers to ‘The Killers’. He once explicetly refers to the Killers, but the main character’s name does is a homage to the short story too. This even foreshadowed Anders’s death. I really love this short story…

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  14. Dear god, this story reads like a list of everything you are not supposed to do when writing a story. An irritatingly pretentious, arrogant character that is nevertheless viewed as flawless by the narrator, a stunning lack of descriptive talent in the first half and a florid lavishing of purple prose in the second… and that’s not even taking into account the abundance of spelling errors in the transcript.
    How this story has gotten so many favorable reviews is beyond me; it is a first draft at best and stilted, unreadable tripe at worst. Ugh.

    • Dear god, this comment reads like a list of everything you are not supposed to do when commenting. An irritatingly pretentious, arrogant commenter that is nevertheless viewed as flawless by himself, It is a first draft at best and stilted, unreadable tripe at worst. Ugh.

      • First off, I wasn’t aware that comments were only acceptable if they contained no criticism of any type whatsoever. Clearly, I should have heaped glowing praise upon a piece I didn’t like instead of, god forbid, having an opinion.
        Truly, I am stripped bare by your witty retort. Hurling my own words back upon me is the very essence of a witty retort, and not a response best left in grade school.
        Criticism is not a personal attack. Take the stick out, it must chafe.

  15. Hi, you might want to consider revising your draft. Here are just a few things I’ve found and there is probably plenty more:

    The first sentence is needlessly long — the run on sentence doesn’t read very well and the attempt at psuedo stream of consciousness prose comes off as sloppy as best. The second sentence also doesn’t flow naturally from the first clause to the second. The description of Anders reads less as a description and more just a soup of big, fancy words.

    The conversation in the second paragraph reads as very contrived and unnatural. Bank workers leaving their stations to do “nothing” is also quite cliched; especially during a particularly busy period, workers are far less likely (and also be allowed to) just walk off when there is a massive line. That the characters suddenly “hate” the teller just makes them come off as juvenile and people who have never led adult lives and occupations before.

    The paragraph which first describes the scene with the bank robbers doesn’t have the amount of impact or stress that it seems you wanted to convey. The description is quite bland and lifeless, and makes it seem like just another day the bank gets robbed. Anders’ dialogue is once again quite contrived.

    I also have absolutely no idea what “drowning eyes” are nor what you are trying to convey with them.

    Again, the next “action” sequence with the bank robbers restraining the guards is very mechanical and lifeless. It really fails to do what a good action or suspenseful scene should in inciting some manner of adrenal response from the reader. Then suddenly the tonality shifts and you’re back to using big, fancy words like “torper” (it’s torpOr, with an O) as if you’re trying to distract the reader from the lack of evocative description with some big words you don’t think they will know, And thanks to the poor description, I have already forgotten where the “man with the pistol” is, where the “empty position” is and what the bank robbers are even talking about by the end of the paragraph.

    Also, even if you ignore the fact that most banks do not keep very much money on them at any given time anymore, Hefty bags are very unweildy for carrying soft and/or pliable materials such as cash, and large amounts of coinage would just rip a hole through the bottom — probably not the best choice for robbing a bank.

    Because all of the other characters have yet gone unnamed, the action now becomes very difficult to follow. The only named character, Anders, mostly just comes off as self-indulgent authorwank (and of course he just so happens to be a book critic), arrogantly “standing up” to the robbers. The air of the narration matches the character in that it seems to feel as if it is better than everything else (and thus in essence, the reader), despite having no real achievements nor qualities to earn such level of status or respect.

    The word “titters” is again very jarring and dissonant with the previous prose. It’s as if every fifty or so words you’ve realised that you haven’t used a fancy word in a while, hastily look something up in the thesaurus and throw in the first word that sounds vaguely relevant. I would consider breaking up the final sentence of that paragraph as well, as it goes on for way too long and as a result reads poorly.

    … The paragraph describing the bank definitely needs to be revised. The description continues to be difficult to follow as you insist on (poorly) weaving Anders’ (consistently negative) opinion on each detail, and once the realisation finally hits that it is supposed to be comical of all things, I’m already more inclined to laugh about the poor quality of the prose, as opposed to the joke.

    It’s also jarring to have the bank robber, who has been built up as uncouth and uneducated suddenly use the word “comical”.

    The paragraph that describes the path of the bullet is again poorly done. It reads as if you pulled open an anatomy book and copied down each of the parts, which accomplishes nothing other than once again assume that the reader is a moron (a lack of respect which will ultimately just turn back on you from the reader).

    … Honestly I could continue but by this point the word soup multiplies into a singularity and my headache is getting worse and worse just trying to make sense of it, let alone criticise it.

    I think the best way to sum the piece up is that it’s pretentious, The prose is pretentious, the character of Anders is pretentious, and given those two points I am going to go ahead and assume that the author is as well. These three things (that is, the prose, the character, and the author) all possess an inflated sense of importance about themselves and a caustic lack of respect for their readers (and likely everyone else around them). They (again, the prose, the character, and the author) think that poor writing can be excused by “fancy” words and “profound” topics but all it does is highlight the lack of literary creativity and inability to interact with the reader on a sensory or emotional level (or on any level at that, other than irritation).

    Ultimately I did not feel anything from reading this piece, and in my eyes that makes the piece a failure.

  16. Wow, the comments on this are hilarious. You know this blogger didn’t write this story, right? It’s by Tobias Wolff, who’s pretty widely regarded as one of the greatest American short story writers. I’m not saying that you’re not allowed to think it’s pretentious and terrible, but maybe you should take a real quick second look at your standards if you’re calling a piece that ran in the New Yorker a failure.

    This is sort of like when that brilliant violinist played in the subway for a day. People who would pay hundreds of dollars to see him just walked by, because he was playing in the subway, not an opera house. If you take a masterpiece of American short story writing and stick it on a blog, someone will come by and tell you it’s terrible and needs another draft.

    It’s funny, but also kind of sad. Is there a word for something that’s bitterly funny? Come on Nika, you’ve schooled Tobias Wolff, now help me out here.

    • Dear Kit,
      I share your amazement, and perhaps together we can appreciate the irony of Nika’s commentary on Wolfe’s brilliant story about a man worn literally to death by cynicism, arrogance, and boredom because of his pathological inability to stop criticizing every little thing without appreciating imperfection.

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