A FRIEND of mine just posted this morning that Tobias Wolff was in town over last weekend and did a reading at Antioch University here in L.A. and my heart just sank. I missed it. Wolff, for me, is one of those writer’s that I can’t break the rhythm once I’ve started reading. There are a few like that. I finish one story and then I want another, and then another — like a salt fix. I want to stay in those cadences; I want to continue peering through his lens. In other words, I don’t want to be interrupted.
Below is a section from one of my favorite short stories of his, “Bullet in the Brain,” in which a critic who can’t stop mouthing off, expressing his scathing opinions, makes himself a vivid target.
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. But for now Anders can still make time. Time for the shadows to lengthen on the grass, time for the tethered dog to bark at the flying ball, time for the boy in right field to smack his sweat-blackened mitt and softly chant, They is, they is, they is…
What is remarkable about this story is the shifts in emotion, tone and voice. The first section is almost slapstick, but the moment that the violence pierces the narrative, everything changes. Becomes science and then poetry. It’s a short, short story. Slim but resonates deeply. It’s best heard out loud.
Here is an NPR interview and longer excerpt from the story. And, if I can find it, Woolf did a reading of the entire story over NPR some years back right around the time the collection, The Night in Question was published. This short story also appears in his most recent collection, Our Story Begins. It’s worth it just to hear him speak that very last line:
they is, they is, they is.
And here he is talking about reading writing and his novel, Old School, for the Big Read Project: