Short story: “Bullet in the Brain”

by look i have opinions

“Bullet in the Brain,” by Tobias Wolff

1,925 words

From the September 25, 1995 New Yorker (subscribers can read here), also from the February 2008 New Yorker Fiction Podcast (listen here); also available on the NPR site here and in PDF format here; collected in The Night in Question and Our Story Begins

This is the kind of great story that somehow feels like a lucky accident. Not to underestimate the amount of work and taste and compassion that went into it—I just can’t shake the idea that writing this must have involved a ton of luck. The cartoonishness of the opening could fall flat. The change in tone halfway through could be jarring or disappointing or confusing. The narrator’s omniscience could be distracting or ring false. The details of Anders’ life could come off as sentimental or affectedly unsentimental or preachy (“the pleasure of giving respect”) or too ludicrous (“Mr. Mole”), or they could slow the pace too much, or they could feel like loose ends. None of those things happen to this story. You can take its pulse.

Only in fiction do we get to see a redemption take place in a handful of dying synapses while jumping several decades back in time. I find this more believable than most real-life apologies, rehabilitations, and deathbed conversions.

Edited to add: Why does the New Yorker offer abstracts for their subscriber-only fiction pieces? Do they just want to screw with people? Also, why do the abstracts steal so much of the language of the originals?