• Bullet in the Brain

    Posted Posted by David Duhr in WBN Story Club     Comments 18 comments

    TL;DR version: Our first selection for the WBN Story Club is Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain.” What follows is a bunch of gobbledygook about why I picked it. To skip all that and read about the story club process, scroll down to “Logistics.” To skip all that and just read the story and join the discussion, scroll down to the section titled “The Story.”


    The thing to remember about best-laid plans is that I’m a real dum-dum. Twice this week I read through and took notes on my inaugural selection for the WBN Story Club, Stuart Dybek’s “Hot Ice,” a wonderful story that I was prepared to talk about for weeks or even months — a story that is, as I learned only last night, not available online.

    In the immortal word of Rick Perry, oops.

    In fact, none of the stories from The Coast of Chicago are available online. (Legitimately, that is; I did find some of them at one of those sketchy Russian sites that illegally reproduces copyrighted material.)

    Sorry, Dybekkers, but you’ll have to wait.

    Thankfully the “Hot Ice” search did lead me quickly to another idea. Probably some of you remember the story “Death of the Right Fielder” from that collection, the one where the kid out in right field is suddenly felled by… something. So his teammates bury him and then head home, and we read this passage:

    “As for us, we walked back, but by then it was too late — getting on to supper, getting on to the end of summer vacation, time for other things, college, careers, settling down and raising a family.”

    And that story and moment, my friends, led me straight to Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain,” a story that begins at a bank and, a few short pages later, ends forty years earlier, at a pickup baseball game, in where else but right field.

    I love this story, and I’m super curious to find out what you all think of it. Those of you who were in some of our earliest workshops will remember reading and discussing it. I hope you don’t mind doing so again!



    My original idea for this story club thing was to introduce each story and then close with some discussion questions, like those book club sections in the backs of popular books. But I hate those book club sections in the backs of popular books.

    So let’s all read this story (link below) and then discuss whatever the hell we want to discuss.

    Leave your comments, questions, impressions, arguments, insights and discoveries in the comments section below, and tick “notify” if you want to receive an email whenever someone else leaves a comment. That way you can keep up with what’s a-happenin’.

    But don’t feel rushed or pressured. Some of you might read “Bullet in the Brain” and respond immediately; some of you might take a few days with it, or even a couple of weeks. There’s no deadline for responses — I’ll discuss this story for as long as you want, and I imagine others of you will, too.

    “Bullet in the Brain” is under 2,000 words, so I recommend reading it once for pleasure and story — i.e., read it as a reader — and then read it again, slower, and this time as a writer.


    The Story

    “Bullet in the Brain” originally appeared in the New Yorker in 1995, and then in Wolff’s collection The Night in Question. You can find it here, reprinted with permission in a Danish magazine.

    I hope you enjoy it as much as I do. Now together let’s figure out just what in the hell is happening in it!


    WriteByNight co-founder David Duhr is copy editor and fiction editor at the Texas Observer and writes about books for the Dallas Morning News, Electric Literature, Publishing Perspectives, and others.

    WriteByNight is a writers’ service dedicated to helping you achieve your creative potential and literary goals. We work with writers of all experience levels working in all genres, nationwide and worldwide. If you have a 2016 writing project that you’d like a little help with, take a look at our book coaching, private instruction and writer’s block counseling services. Join our mailing list and get a FREE writer’s diagnostic, “Common problems and SOLUTIONS for the struggling writer.”

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    18 Comments to “Bullet in the Brain”

    • This was a totally unexpected short story. The author takes it from present to past in a totally unexpected way. Why does he remember the baseball game and the words ‘they is’? What takes him from laughing at Zeus and Europa to the memory from his childhood?

      I loved the way the bullet going through his brain is described. I could see it cutting through those areas, disrupting the normal functioning of the brain. The pathways take him to this forgotten memory and those two words.

      They is. Ponder on it and it can take you places where you don’t expect to go.

      • Thanks, Barbara. I’m glad you liked it. But what do you think is the significance of that baseball game and that “They is” moment? What happens (if anything?) before the bullet enters his brain that leads to this memory taking such prominence?

    • 2 min. to Midnight, May 8th. I just printed the story to read w/o the glow of screen light sometime tomorrow. I thought I’d comment on your blog, David. If this is the way you express yourself in writing you must be lots of fun to talk with in person. I enjoy your blogs introducing the next thing for members to think about. I get a few chuckles out of it along the way every time.

      • Thank you, Eleanor. That’s why I do this, to try to connect and give us some things to talk/think about, but while trying to have a little fun along the way. It doesn’t always work! But I do always appreciate your responses.

    • Very enjoyable. The story exploits so many human emotions in such as short period of time. Anders, a book critic, starts off performing a mundane adult task of going to the bank (with a sarcastic attitude that was quite amusing) and ends with the memory of an ordinary baseball game as a young boy. What happens between the boy and the adult between these everyday situations? Ander’s brain is full of predominantly negative experiences that have shaped his life, and he alludes to the fact that his livelihood does not bring any fulfillment. But as the bullet scrambles his memories around, these personal recollections of what shaped his character do not come front and center. They are lost just like they are every day, showing up in his attitude and his dialogue and his outlook on life. The guy even makes a living as a book critic—looking for what he doesn’t like, having built his emotional inventory on memorized poems because that’s what he taught himself to do. But the pure, genuine experience he had as a kid and all the “hope and talent and love” that might have sprung if well-nurtured and appreciated was lost. The irony is the phrase “they is” is grammatically wrong, but intrigued Ander (a book critic, remember) as a kid.

      I think the author is exploring the sad nature of adulthood in direct contrast with the children—adults become cynical (like the lady in line) and mocking (like the artist) and useless (like the security guard) and broken (like the gunman). Why? Because they don’t “take time” to be kids, to appreciate sights and sounds around them, to follow the instincts of their childhood that might have suggested what would make them happy in life. Adults are caught up in predictable lives and society-built expectations which in the end doesn’t hold meaning or, even worse, becomes their downfall. I’d have to say that “Bullet in the Brain” is quite the cautionary tale.

      • I saw the story differently, Emily, but I like your interpretation of it as cautionary tale.

      • Thanks for the response, Emily. Well thought out, as I would expect.

        “his livelihood does not bring any fulfillment.” I wonder if that’s represented by the bank? It’s not as if armed gunmen hold up grocery stores or Cinnabons very often, but he could have set this story almost anywhere and massaged the details to make it fit.

        I also wonder, can we connect “They is” to “I am”? Spoken properly (“properly”), Coyle’s cousin is saying “Shortstop is the best position there is,” a form of “to be.” But then his mispronunciation “they” is also a personal pronoun, and “is” could be seen as a corruption of that. So, “they are,” which can trace back to “I am.” As Kenneth points out below, “Anders” can translate to “alienated,” “different,” etc. I dunno, seems like there could be something there. What do you think?

    • Good choice – David.

      Yes Eleanor this is absolutely David’s sense of humor. Good points Emily, regarding the sad nature of adulthood. Though the opposite can also be true. There are plenty of folks going through traumatic childhoods and finding within, the strength to carve out a happier adulthood.

      Very unusual description regarding the bullets damage. And all those wonderful memories torn away. As a history teach the first thoughts rushing through my mind – the manner in which Booth shot Lincoln – that bullet lodged beneath Lincoln’s eye socket.

      The problem with short stories, more often than not the reader is left wanting more. How could there be more after that bullet tore up his brain. An afterlife? And if he is in an afterlife – what form does he take? An adult or child. Is he sent back to not make the same foolish mistake again? But the humor is in the fact he keeps on making the same mistake – with different criminals in different scenes, and scenarios.

      We all love surprises and I didn’t think he’d be shot, let alone fatally

      • Thanks for the input, John. If you were going to extend this story, what would you do? Where would you take it? That could be a fun exercise. At the end, “Anders can still make time.” What if he could make even more time?

    • In this superb all-too-short story, Tobia Woolf deftly demonstrates how few words are required to express a great range of emotion. “(Anders) was never in the best of tempers anyway”. Nine words to inform us that this man spends most of his waking hours irritated and the two women nattering within earshot have ratcheted irritable to “murderous”. But Anders isn’t physically murderous, rather, he is “murderously cynical”, a condition aggravated by his career as a book critic and directly responsible for his untimely passing.
      Interestingly, “anders” translates in other languages (Dutch, German) as “alienated” or “different”. It is the first hint of the subtle irony that Woolf uses to great effect in keeping the reader fully engaged.

      Far from being frightened by the clearly violent bank robbers, he is contemptuous-contempt being the advanced form of terminal cynicism. Contemptuous to the point of giggling at his tormentor’s use of B-movie dialog dispite the gun shoved in his mid section. And in my view, this is where Woolf pulls us in with both hands. We see ourselves as just this calm under pressure; cooly indifferent to imminent death. Brando-like, grinning at our own personal apocalypse.

      Again using the spare brush strokes of a master impressionist, Woolf employs only one word, “capiche”, to launch the story toward its beguiling conclusion. Anders’ cynical-turned-humorous interpretation of the bank’s labored ceiling display,, all that he could not remember and all that he could as bullet’s damage to brain is graphically described “…at nine hundred feet per second” and his aroused, elated feeling at the musical unexpectedness of the words “they is” are launched from this word. Throughout, Woolf has our eyes glued to the page in anticipation of more of his enchanted unexpectedness.

      Did anyone else find subtle irony in Anders position on the baseball team as right field? Speaking from experience in pick-up games, little league and twelve years of organized softball, right field tends to be (not always, but tends to be) staffed by the less “adept”, shall we say.

      I found this story to be an excellent example of short story writing at its best. Looking forward to more.

      • Thanks for the response, Kenneth. I’m glad this one landed with you. As a (former?) book reviewer, some of the traits Anders exhibits make me consider my own relationship with criticism and how it affects me. I’m definitely more jaded about literature than I was before I became a book critic. Is that inevitable? I don’t think so. So what does it say about me? And what would my “They is” moment be? I’m far from an Anders, thankfully, and in part that’s because I stopped reviewing books when I felt myself becoming increasingly cynical.

        As for right field, there’s definitely method behind that decision. If you’ve got someone who can’t make a play, you stick ’em in right field. A player is afraid of the ball, you stick ’em in right field. But Coyle’s cousin walks right in, full of confidence, and puts himself at short, the most important spot in the field. For a certain type of person, short really is the best position there is. And that’s not the kind of person Anders is. So the question is, what makes Coyle’s cousin a shortstop and what makes Anders a right fielder?

        If I can ever find Dybek’s “Death of a Right Fielder,” please read it. There are parallels that go beyond the position on the diamond.

        If you’re a Harper’s subscriber, you can read it here: https://harpers.org/archive/1990/05/death-of-a-right-fielder/

    • I’m back. I’ve read the story and read it to my husband after breakfast. That’s when I often read aloud my writing or something I got online. and then we have a discussion. Fred was still sitting thinking about it for awhile afterwards. So many descriptive phrases have unusual imagery that make you stop and think to experience what the author is saying. In the last paragraph we were taken by, “…dragging it’s comet’s tail of memory and hope into the marble hall of commerce.

      Obviously the story pivots around Anders. I see Anders as a strong character, sarcastic maybe from years of being a book reviewer having to read and comment on various qualities of content. I experience the remarks the author attaches to Anders as a bit comical in relation to the seriousness of the action occurring in the bank. I felt the building of tension between him and the criminal. That description of how the gun in his gut felt is funny.

      The surprising thing in this story is the rather quick changes of perspective. Things are a sort of going along naturally then there’s that instant when I realized something traumatic was about to happen. How Tobias described the bullet traveling through Anders’ brain is fascinating. Commenting on a memory appearing, then the speed till, “…the bullet came under the mediation of brain time.” Who has ever thought there is ‘brain time’? I felt a sudden shift from the memories not remembered to the boyhood memory.

      I am entertained by the author’s tale of Anders’ memories he’s not having, going on to the boyhood memory of when he was with his buddies playing sandlot baseball. In there, I see a clue of how old Anders is while in the moment. Baseball fans will catch that too.; discussing Mantel and Mays. The ending was quietly dramatic depicting Anders death fading away with the repeat of, “They is.”

      • Seems that the “marble hall of commerce” line is weighted with meaning. What does it say to you? Anders makes his money by harshly criticizing the artistic endeavors of other people, and he’s killed when (presumably) either withdrawing or depositing money earned by doing so. That’s no accident.

        I’m glad you mentioned perspective. We haven’t really gotten into the nuts and bolts of the narration, but Wolff is up to something. What does the “of course” in the very first line tell us? And do you mark a shift in the narration at some point? What does it signify?

        Lots of layers to this story, huh?

    • Pros & Cons & Mixes:

      Anders’s “murderous rage” at the opening and then actually getting murdered was nicely ironical but like most of this story it lacks subtlety.

      Draws you in immediately by strong opinions and emotions.

      It’s impressive how Wolff doesn’t bother setting up the criminals. They are introduced mid-paragraph, and are on the move.

      Anders’s smart-ass commentary at the sight of them is hardly credible.

      The Hemingway references felt heavy-handed. “The Killers”. “They is” as a distracting homage to “A Clean Well-Lighted Place’s” nada, nada, nada.

      The “piercing, ammoniac smell” of the man’s breath was vivid. This line may be the best of the story, for it highlights Anders’s attention to the sensuous, shared reality of life, rather than the self-justifying opinions that gets him into trouble. If the story concentrated more on the subtlety found there, it would have worked a lot better for me.

      With a gun under his chin Anders notices the building’s architecture. Ridiculous.

      Once the bullet enters Anders’s brain, the details that pile up feel sentimental. Worse, they don’t feel integral to the story. I am sure that’s Wolff’s point, that the story-book aspect of a critic’s life to a critic only seems to matter once he’s dead. Craft-wise, this device of entering the world of the dead tells us we shouldn’t be reading this like straight realism. All in all, it’s an idea-driven story, and lacks the kind of poetry that makes Hemingway’s stories – Wolff’s model – stand out.

      Worth the read for the things Wolff does well, though. Thanks for sharing the story with us, David. I had skimmed one of his memoirs (or was it a novel?) a while back. I wasn’t aware of Wolff the short-story writer.

      • I’m so glad to see a mixed response. Anders would be pleased. I wonder what someone like Anders would think of this story? I also wonder if it’s possible Wolff is criticizing elements of the story through Anders. Meta meta meta.

        I also enjoy how Wolff introduces the robbery and criminals. No buildup, no hints. Suddenly they’re just there, mid-paragraph, mid-robbery. As for his commentary about them, I take that as a sign that Anders’ critical nature has (probably long ago) bled into his day-to-day interactions with humans, rather than with only their artwork. You’re right, far from subtle. But still effective, to me.

        I don’t know my Hemingway short fiction enough to have picked up on the allusions, outside of the one he mentions directly. I’ll have to reread “A Clean Well-Lighted Place” and see where that comes from. Thanks for pointing it out.

        “With a gun under his chin Anders notices the building’s architecture. Ridiculous.” Not realistic, or too heavy-handed/unsubtle to be effective?

        Re the details and memories Anders doesn’t revisit, Wolff writes: “It is worth noting what Anders did not remember, given what he did remember.” What’s he up to with that? Why is it worth noting? I wonder what the story would have looked like had he gone straight to the sandlot rather than give us three heavy paragraphs in between.

        Are you familiar with Stuart Dybek’s “Death of a Right Fielder”? I’d love to hear your thoughts on that one, and the parallels between the two.

    • Here’s some more input from a reader who wants to remain anonymous, and makes some interesting connections:

      I decided to read a copy of Bullet to the Brain. This is what stood out to me immediately.

      The story was written in 1995. In 1990 the movie Good Fellas was released which was based on a book of same name published in 1986.

      The lines in Wolfe story are direct quotes from Good Fellas book and movie:

      You think I am comical, you think I am some kind of a clown?

      Those were words Joe Pesci said to Ray Liotta in a restaurant in the movie.

      Because of that I think what triggered (no pun intended) Anders to remember only scene from baseball game was the choice of regional dialect, which Anders was very judgmental about.

      In robber’s case Ander’s believed he was an ignorant streetguy who could not speak English without inserting his native Italian (capiche). The cousin from MS in the baseball scene was also unable to speak without using a regional dialect term of “they is.”

      I think Anders is an outspoken holy than thou guy, an elitist, who writes out his deep seeded hatred for the uneducated and common man in his reviews. Although he held his tongue at the baseball game, he was unable to in the bank…by repeating the word capiche to the robber he was calling him out on his ignorance and uncouth behavior…..and in true Wiseguy fashion he got got smoked!

    • This was a great selection for our WBN story club. I am left wondering what has happened to this guy as an adult to cause him to lose both a sense of joy and terror. His response to the people in the bank is untethered from reality. He cannot read the situation at hand. Have many years of negativity as a lonely and disdainful adult finally reduced his perceptual ability? Or is there something more organically wrong? Maybe he’s had a minor stroke which wiped at his empathy and fear. Wolfe lets us know that Anders has had a past where he was engaged with humanity and society, but somehow that engagement has been lost. The most striking thing to me about the ending is how simple and visceral the pleasure is. “Heat. A baseball field. Yellow grass.” I can feel that and smell it. Maybe Ander’s brain returns to this moment because the physicality and elation of it will smooth the transition to death. Or maybe Wolfe is making a comment on the preciousness of each moment, especially the simple ones which are not complicated by humanity’s artifice.

    • […] work, story clubbers, in discussing our first entry, Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain.” I think we did it justice. (They is, they […]

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