Commentary Magazine


Wolff & Tolstoy

I don’t often make the time to listen to The New Yorker‘s fiction podcast, but this month’s is a treat: T. C. Boyle reading and discussing Tobias Wolff’s short story “Bullet in the Brain,” which first appeared in the magazine in 1995 and was included in Wolff’s 1996 collection The Night in Question. It’s also reprinted in Wolff’s forthcoming collection Our Story Begins, and was even made into a short film. (I can’t bring myself to watch it, though; I like the story too much.) In other words, it’s a very popular story, and I don’t think Boyle exaggerates in saying that it is, “at its length, perfect.” It’s six pages long.

“Bullet in the Brain” goes like this: A deeply cynical and vicious book critic named Anders walks into a bank. The bank gets held up. Anders cannot help laughing at the robbers’ clichéd lingo, at what he calls a “great script . . . the stern, brass-knuckled poetry of the dangerous classes.” Fans of the crime genre will think of Sam Spade’s remark in The Maltese Falcon: “The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter.” But Anders’s words to that effect don’t intimidate. They only earn him the titular bullet.

That isn’t a spoiler. The real story is what happened after “the bullet smashed Anders’s skull and plowed 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.” Wolff’s autopsy deadpan gives way to a miraculously condensed account of the life that doesn’t and the moment that does flash before Anders’s eyes. We see, in effect, what made Anders who he is—and the memory of who he used to be bubbling up in the final seconds of his life.

Boyle notes how like Flannery O’Connor’s writing this story is, in that it takes an essentially comical or cartoonish situation and transforms it into something “poignant.” Indeed, O’Connor’s story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” has much in common with “Bullet in the Brain,” right down to the bullets and where they wind up. But I think Wolff’s story should be read alongside Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich. It’s every bit as merciless in laying bare the accretions and losses of a lifetime, and what they might mean to us as life comes to an end. Ilyich’s death is as slow and agonizing as Anders’s is not. Compare these very different approaches, and I think you’ll agree that these very different approaches achieve similar effects. And “poignant” doesn’t come close to describing them.