“The Comet’s Tail of Memory”

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:


4 thoughts on ““The Comet’s Tail of Memory”

  1. It is a terrific story and interview is too. I was especially moved by his homage to reading, to the deeply ‘humanizing’ act of imagination, ‘the radical transformation in a human of being to be able to see the world from another’s point of view’.
    All this sent me on a Wolff quest that reaped many rewards. One was his reading of ‘Bullet in the brain’ which starts at around min 23 of ‘Last Words’ which is pretty riveting in its own right. here it is: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/114/last-words

  2. I’m so happy you enjoyed this and also that it sent you off to look for more! And yes, that line about the “radical transformation” is one of my favorites from this video. he is wonderful to listen to read and talk about writing. i went one night in the driving rain to hear him speak — the night before an international vacation. it was worth it. and thanks so much for finding/alerting me to the link. I’ll do a new post with that added link!
    Many, many thanks. That’s exactly the recording I was looking for. And I’d forgotten that it was from This American Life, so many thanks. What a holiday gift.

  3. you’re very welcome. and speaking of gifts , thank you for writing and curating this goldmine of a blog. Have a wonderful Christmas!

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