Short Story Discovery: Bullet in the Brain by Tobias Wolff

This is the first to what I call in my head "The Commuter Series," a line of highlighted short stories that hold just as much literary power as a full fledged novel, but can be read while sitting for a midday meal or on the train to work. In a Ted Talk about "being a better you," it was questioned why most people who set New Years resolutions, by February have forgotten/given up on the majority of goals. And in the questioning process, one of the first and clearest answers offered was because the average person who strives to accomplish many things--the one who sets resolutions and goals --is the one most aware of their complete and unfortunate lack of time. 

Being a full-time student with an internship (that I love) and three jobs (that I tolerate), sometimes I feel because of all the things I have to do, I don't get to do what I want to do; one being to read more books; like many other people, my 2018 Yearly goal is to read more (alongside to learn how to cook real meals.) But as I am constantly swamped with a million and one things to do, I not only lazily throw beans, peas, and rice in a bowl, but I also can't read the books I want without giving up hours of sleep. (For Jandy Nelson's I'll Give You the Sun I ONE-HUNDRED PERCENT did my body a wrong, but the three hours of sleep for a great read was overall worth.) 

So, with the goal to read more but restricted by how few hours are in my average day, I've recently resorted to short stories! On the bus, in between classes, during a quick lunch in the library, I'm astounded at how many short stories I can get through, but also how there are so many that have just as much literary impact as a novel, but consolidated! 

And that's when "The Commuter Series" was born in my mind! It's nothing extraordinarily original, but merely my desire to share with others who also have unfortunately busy schedules, a bundle of great short stories like tiny adventures without time costs. Also, beyond discussing works of fiction, I love researching authors and sharing whatever I can find.

In conclusion, I hope you enjoy the following blog post and most importantly know: it is okay to be busy!  Taking an alternative route from the traditional novel, there are so many fiction pieces out there that have word counts designed perfectly for crazily active lives and I hope one of my research/discussion posts brings light to a short story you may be interested in taking the ten minutes to reading. 

In general, I hope by the end of these posts, you feel like you've learned a lot, as I definitely have, while gaining the satisfaction of reading without the stress of committing.  


Wolff is the Ward W. and Priscilla B. Woods Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences at Stanford University, where he has taught classes in English and creative writing since 1997. He also served as the director of the Creative Writing Program at Stanford from 2000 to 2002.


Born in 1945 in Birmingham, Alabama, Wolff lived his adolescent life with his mother in the North Cascade Mountains in Washington State, while his brother and father lived on the East Coast. Wolff's memoir This Boy's Life (1989) chronicles this early time moving from Seattle to Nehalem, the remote company town in Washington State, and also his mother's later marriage to an abusive husband and step-father. 

Wolff served in the U.S Army during the Vietnam War era and has several short stories written with those memories as background for his characters. He has a First Class Honors degree in English from Hertford College, Oxford (1972) and an M.A from Stanford University. In 1975, he was awarded a Wallace Stegner Fellowship in Creative Writing at Stanford. 

Fiction or non-fiction, Wolff's writing is characterized by an exploration of personal/biographical and existential terrain. Wyatt Mason wrote in the London Review of Books, "Typically, his protagonists face an acute moral dilemma, unable to reconcile what they know to be true with what they feel to be true. Duplicity is their great failing and Wolff's main theme."


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.

Bullet in the Brain is a short short on the death of a literary critic, named Anders. After being shot in the head, the abrupt end is elongated by the broken floodgates of his life's memories. It's significant that Wolff includes everything Anders does not remember in order to make his last memory, one hidden in the blurriness of youth, more significant as the end finale of a life. 

It is worth noting what Anders did not remember, given what he did remember...

he does not remember his first lover...he does not remember his dying mother...

But this is what he remembered. Heat. A baseball field...”


This short short is a concise example of Wolff's provocative style on existential writing. In the length of one commute ride to work, Wolff gives us this seemingly bland, awful character whose later death is essential to understanding the deeper complexities of his early life.

Anders's almost outlandish amounts of hatred and disdain for those around him, even for himself and his work, is significant because the one thing that finally gives him satisfaction in an unsatisfying life is his death. Initially, Anders is a flat character who is easy to hate. Shown through the bare minimum of speech, Wolff gives us a man who believes everything he says is important. It's also significant to note that Anders is a book critic, literally someone who gets paid to be opinionated, his thoughts and criticisms have a price value.

So, what comes out of Anders's mouth shows readers his bitter personality. However, in his death--the moment silenced by a bullet to the brain--readers receive full disclosure to the evolution of such a personality.

In the most visceral, snapshot kind of way, readers learn the events of Anders's life and why he is the way he is. Through his memories, readers see how Anders's life tempered him into this ill character of savage comments and lack of compassion. Wolff's point was not to make a character well liked, but to make a character well understood. Readers had to be given everything about Anders's life that made him unsatisfied to understand the weight of his final satisfaction with death. 

And how Bullet in the Brain can completely change the image of a person is because Wolff knew the ins and outs of this character. He goes through the complex facets of Anders's life and does not omit what Anders "does not remember" because those memories are the life we as the readers should remember when Anders does not. Through death, literally because of his death, Wolff gives us the major events of Anders's life

In reflection to our own lives, everything significant we do is for the human experience of now. Loving, laughing, and crying, we do it in the present tense of now because we cannot in death. In our ever developing world of ever developing smart technology, our Facebook and our Instagrams immortalize us in pictures we select to showcase. But from Bullet in the Brain and Wolff's symbology is that the value of our life comes from the reality that we face death. Both life and death give one another meaning and weight, just like good and bad memories--just like all we do not remember to make space for all that we do. 

original artwork found here:      

original artwork found here: