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.
– “Bullet in the Brain”, Tobias Wolff
Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain” is one of those stories that, no matter how many times I read it, will always bowl me over. Here, Anders, an obnoxious critic waiting in line inside a bank, is shot at close-range. But that’s not the story. The story unfolds as the bullet, travelling “at a pathetically sluggish, glacial pace”, moves through the man’s brain and sets off a single recollection. Just that one beautiful, simple recollection, that stays with him until his (presumable) death. Anders is one of those acerbic, annoying people I wouldn’t even want to meet, but in this story, I mourn for him. The story makes me re-check my early judgment. How little we know of other people! So little that what we think we understand doesn’t even count. If seen from outside, the shooting scene would have only made me scoff (and maybe even say, He had it coming?), but Wolff took readers inside Ander’s head, inside scenes of his life, his regrets, his sadness. Wolff writes with such a forgiving eye and a tender perspective that he makes us see, especially through this story, that there is something to mourn for in every person, even one who seems to have no humanity left in him. How unfair that the bullet can’t be outrun forever! How awful that it can’t be charmed to a halt!
(And I wouldn’t even talk about technique; it’s clear that a writer who is able to convey all of this in a few pages is a genius.)
And then read Our Story Begins, because “Bullet in the Brain”‘s just one gem out of many. I have yet to finish the New Stories section, but I can say this: this is one of the best, if not the best, short story collection I have ever read.