Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Tobias Wolff: "Bullet in the Brain"

Continuing with Mr. Wolff, and his collection, The Night in Question, we come to "Bullet in the Brain," a well known story about a book critic named Anders.

In direct contrast to "Powder," this story begins with a character who is difficult to like:
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.

Anders belittles everything. He hates everything. Even when a pair of bank robbers steps forth, brandishing guns, Anders can't corral his contempt.
"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."


Anders is so annoying that you start wishing that the robbers would kill him just to shut him up. And eventually, one of them does. I've always wondered what real book critic Wolff had in mind when he wrote this. It must have been fun.

Of course, if the story ended with this imaginary revenge, it wouldn't be much of a story.

Instead, Wolff takes a cliched idea--that when you die, your life passes before your eyes--and uses it to turn the story on its head. As the bullet passes through Anders' brain, we are told, first, what he doesn't see: scenes from his life that show that he wasn't always such an ass, that he once was likeable and kind and worthy, as were we all.

Not only do you come to feel empathy for Anders, you begin to feel guilty as hell for wishing him dead.

The ending, a description of the single scene that Anders does relive in his dying moments, is possibly my favorite short story ending of all time. I won't set forth the whole thing, just the last line, which I hope I never forget (and which makes no sense out of context, so go read the story):
They is, they is, they is.