A Northwest Based Literary Journal

Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain”: the Perfect Imperfect Short Story

In my comments to fiction submitters who choose our Feedback Option, I sometimes point out craft techniques that are considered weak. Yet there’s a story I love that seems to do so much of craft wrong, and has still become a classic.

 

Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain” has long been one of my favorite short stories. It’s only recently that I began to understand why.

For those who’ve never read it, here’s a link to the story. It’s very short, less than 2,000 words. It concerns a book critic named Anders, an unpleasant character at best. The fact that his life’s work is “critic” immediately skews the reader’s perception of him toward the negative, rather than make him sympathetic, as so many writing guides advise.

He exhibits no redeeming qualities in the brief time we know him. He dislikes his work. He dislikes, apparently, everyone he comes in contact with. And not only dislikes, but also belittles and ridicules them, sometimes in his mind, sometimes out loud, and does it in that condescending way that guarantees he has no friends.

He is in a bank, silently criticizing the tellers, the other people in line, and the writers whose books he reviews. And then in come bank robbers, and he insults them as well, even to the face of one of them, who promptly shoots him in the head.

And there the story takes a right angle turn, first explaining the physiology of the damage done by bullet to brain, and triggering the reader’s memory of the old cliché, that at the point of death one’s life flashes by. Wolff then mentions a series of things Anders might have recalled in those dying seconds, but did not. All of them are clear clues to his final, misanthropic state of mind. Instead Anders’s memory jumps back to childhood, and replays a scene from a pickup baseball game, an episode, apparently, of no real consequence. A random choice? And yet each time I read it, I get a little choked up. Why feel anything for this rude, hateful man?

In a class I took last year at Hugo House, we spent part of a session discussing BITB. As the instructor pointed out, Wolff used some aspects of craft that are typically considered poor writing: in addition to the repulsive main character, some of the narrative is didactic, authorial, simply telling the reader what we should think of Anders. It’s a technique I routinely advise against. But Wolff’s use of that style, by adding to our dislike of Anders by tapping the reader’s disdain for lecturing prose, makes the story’s eventual revelation that much more powerful.

But even understanding this, no one really had a credible theory on why the story is so successful. We considered the circumstance of the story. We considered its detail and scientific accuracy. We read parts of the opening, and then the close, and I and others fought the usual emotions at the ending, but still we couldn’t figure out what made us feel that way. It wasn’t until about a week later that something occurred to me, something I hadn’t seen in any analysis of the story. In that nanosecond before death Anders is back with his childhood pals, getting ready to play the ballgame, with the addition of a new boy, a friend’s cousin from Mississippi.

“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.

And in those two simple, ungrammatical words is the Anders that once was—a young boy, full of wonder. A boy enthralled with the world and its promise of things unknown and ready to be learned. A boy full of hope, perhaps experiencing the last time he will feel this way. Never mind the disappointments that came after.

Maybe it’s that I played a lot of baseball once, or the fact that Anders has become a curmudgeonly jerk (something I’m accused of occasionally), but I think more likely it’s that sense of hope—to see it in that young boy and to understand how it was lost, how life batters it out of you. To realize that even the worst of us, even the saddest, the loneliest, the most misanthropic person had, for a brief time at least, some hope for the future.

They is.

Sometimes, I think, writers become so concerned with craft that they forget about the story. Whatever else your writing group or teachers, or I might suggest, remember that the story is what really matters. And a good story has a tendency to transcend craft.

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