This week for the Deal Me In Challenge, the cards dealt me the 10 of Spades – Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain.” The story originally ran in the New Yorker on September 25, 1995 and was included in Wolff’s 1996 collection, The Night in Question. I found it online as a legal, cited reprint in the archives of P.O.V., a Danish film studies journal.
This is a very short story, but it packs the emotional wallop of a much longer tale. Our narrator, Anders, is stuck in line at the bank. Having become surly and jaded in his job as a book reviewer, everything – stories, conversations, scenes around him – reminds him of something else. He seems both misanthropic and joyless, and he’s not above remarking aloud to others that he finds their words and actions plebeian or dull or ridiculous. He is sarcastic and caustic in the extreme.
As Anders waits for his turn at the teller window, two men enter the bank, masked and armed and clearly intent on robbery. Anders can’t even keep his mouth shut during this event, laughing and critiquing the thieves’ choice of words as they instruct the tellers to hand over money and control their urges to sound an alarm. Unsurprisingly, Anders and his mouth put him deep in hot water, and he soon finds himself not only the object of one criminal’s ire but also helpless to resist laughing at the absurd mural on the bank’s domed ceiling – a plump-lipped cow with a sultry gaze in the midst of a Grecian mythic caricature.
Things do not go well for Anders, but to give much more detail would spoil the ending completely. This is where the story splits in two; until this point, we’ve been watching Anders from without, and now we go within. Memories, old sensations, early connections parade by, giving us insight not into how Anders came to be so jaded and unpleasant but rather into how he first became enchanted with words. We briefly visit poignant points in his development and come to understand his love for the beauty of an unusual turn of phrase that first inspired him so long ago. We can now feel for him and see him as something more than he first appeared to be.
I was left wondering how this curious, sensitive young man became such a curmudgeon. I wanted to know what had sent him down a grayer path. I was both frustrated by the fact that I’ll never know and fascinated by the early spark that propelled Anders along the series of twists and turns that would eventually, decades later, land him in the bank, overcome with the absurdity of his situation.