Bullet in the Brain

by

Tobias Wolff

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Bullet in the Brain Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Anders visits a bank just before closing time and gets stuck in a line behind two women having a “stupid conversation,” which puts him in a bad mood. This is not unusual for Anders, as he is a quick-tempered book critic, known for his “savagery.”
Anders’s personality is immediately framed by his dislike of others and his bad temper. Interestingly, standing in line does not annoy Anders; rather, he is enraged by the stupidity of the conversation he overhears.
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One of the bank tellers, despite the long line, closes her window early. The two women in front of Anders vocally disapprove and turn to Anders to solicit his commentary. Although he feels a sense of “towering hatred” for the teller, he does not commiserate with the women. Instead, he makes fun of them, thinking they are “presumptuous.”
The women expect Anders to commiserate, as they are all suffering from the bank teller’s thoughtlessness. Anders does feel similarly to the women but refuses to side with them. Instead, his cynicismwhich isolates him from othersmakes him lash out at them for daring to presume he would be sympathetic.
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Shortly afterward, the bank goes silent as two masked men walk in. One of them has a pistol pressed against the bank guard’s neck. They tell everyone to stay silent, or they will be “dead meat.” Hearing this clichéd phrase, Anders make a sarcastic quip to the women he criticized earlier.
Robbers enter the bank, and everyone else in the bank falls quiet out of fear. Anders, however, is so jaded by his cynicism that instead of fearing for his life, he cracks a joke. Anders seems more willing to critique the robber’s language than stay safely silent.
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One bank robber comments on the closed position and asks about the person who works in that spot. The bank teller who closed her window says it is hers, and the robber threatens her personally. Anders, finding poetic justice in this situation, jokes with the two women that “Justice is done.”
Anders does not express any concern for the bank teller, who has been singled out by an armed criminal. Instead, seemingly uncaring of the danger, he takes the time to make a joke. Anders’ cruel humor wins out over any act of self-preservation, or expression of compassion.
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This comment gets one robber’s attention, and he calls Anders a “bright boy,” asking him if he told Anders to talk. When Anders makes another sarcastic comment, saying the nickname is copied from a story by Ernest Hemingway, the robber holds the pistol to Anders’ stomach in warning.
All of Anders’s quips finally grab one robber’s attention, and he addresses Anders directly. Instead of sensing the gravity of the situation, Anders takes a moment to point out a literary reference. Anders seems keener to show off his cynical wit than to behave cautiously.
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The pistol tickles Anders, and he tries not to laugh. Instead, he looks the robber in the eyes, which are red and raw-looking. For the first time, Anders begins to feel a “sense of unease.” Anders’s direct stare prompts the criminal to ask if he’s being flirtatious, and Anders denies it. The robber uses the pistol to tilt Anders’s head to look at the bank’s painted ceiling.
Even with a gun pointed directly at him, Anders is still fighting back his laughter. When Anders looks directly into the robber’s eyes, however, his cynicism briefly disappears, and he realizes the danger he is in. The robber seems unnerved by Anders’ deep gaze and tells him to look away.
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Anders begins to study the ceiling, which is covered in a mural depicting classical figures from history, such as the Greek god Zeus. Anders finds the mural tasteless, and his facial expression registers this disdain.
Even though Anders is looking at the painted ceiling under duress, he cannot stop himself from mentally narrating his sarcastic commentary. Although the painting depicts classical figures, a part of history which Anders used to admire, he only feels disdain for the art.
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The robber, seeing this expression, asks Anders if he thinks the robber is “comical.” Anders answers, “No,” and the robber continues to interrogate him, asking if Anders thinks he is “some kind of clown.” The robber then threatens Anders, saying that if he continues to mess around, he is “history,” and then asks, “Capiche?
Despite the danger he is in, Anders’s contempt for the ceiling’s painting supersedes a sense of caution. His disdain for the art prompts the robber to ask what Anders thinks is funny. The robber then uses a clichéd word from gangster movies to further intimidate Anders.
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Anders, upon hearing this clichéd gangster speech, cannot stop himself from laughing. In retaliation, the robber raises the gun and shoots Anders in the head.
The robber’s cliché, like other clichés used earlier in the story, feeds into Anders’s cynicism. Anders cannot stop himself from laughing at the robber’s words, despite the fact that the robber has a gun pointed at him. In retaliation, the robber shoots Anders in the head.
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The bullet starts to travel through Anders’s brain, starting a chain of “neurotransmissions” in Anders’s mind. As a result of this, unremembered scenes from his past begin to play out, which feature various people from Anders’s life that once mattered to him. There is Sherry, a past girlfriend, and his wife; both women eventually came to “irritate” him.
Anders’s cynicism has led directly to his death, causing him to laughdue to a misused clichéin a moment of extreme danger. As the bullet travels through Anders’s brain, however, his fatal cynicism is contrasted with memories from his youth, which feature innocence and happiness.
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The bullet continues to travel through Anders’s head. Another scene from his youth unfurls, featuring one of his college professors reciting work by the Greek playwright Aeschylus. Anders was so moved by the recitation that his “eyes burned.” Anders also once read one of his classmate’s novels, and felt deep respect for the writer, even though his current career as a critic has led him to resent writers and their books.
In Anders’s youth, language inspired himlistening to his professor recite poetry had the power to bring him to tears. In addition, language also used to catalyze Anders’s compassion: reading a peer’s novel helped Anders better understand his classmate. In contrast, Anders’s adulthood is marked by a lack of passion for language; in fact, language seems to bore him, as he finds his career as a critic to be monotonous.
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Finally, Anders remembers a scene from his childhood “forty years past.” In this scene, he is participating in a summertime baseball game in his neighborhood. The boys of the neighborhood are arguing over which baseball player is better, Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays.
The last scene Anders remembers is one of quintessential innocence: a childhood baseball game. The youthful joy of this summertime game contrasts dramatically with Anders’s current situation, which involves his grisly, unfortunate death as a miserable adult.
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As the argument continues, two new boys arrive to join the game. One of them is named Coyle, and the other is Coyle’s cousin, from Mississippi. Anders has never met Coyle’s cousin, and will “never see” him again after the game ends. The neighborhood boys ask Coyle’s cousin what position he wants to play in the game.
In his adulthood, Anders is unwelcoming to newcomers: he is unsympathetic towards the women in line, and unfeeling for the bank teller who is singled out by the bank robbers. In contrast, in his childhood, Anders was a willing member of a neighborhood group, and innocently welcoming to other people.
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Coyle’s cousin says he wants to play shortstop, because it is the best position “they is.” This mispronunciation, a consequence of the cousin’s Southern accent, startles Anders. In fact, Anders is so intrigued by the mispronunciation that he wants Coyle’s cousin to “repeat what he's just said.” Realizing, however, that asking him to repeat it will make Anders look like “a jerk” to the other boys, Anders refrains from saying anything.
When Coyle’s cousin mispronounces a common phrase, Anders is not disdainful of the mistake; instead, he is amazed by it, and wants to hear it again. As an adult, Anders would likely make fun of Coyle’s cousin for the error, but in his youth, such mistakes only inspire Anders’s curiosity.
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Still, Anders is “elated” by the mispronunciation. He appreciates the way the those “two words” sound, relishing their “unexpectedness and their music.” When he runs out onto the field, he says them quietly “to himself.”
Anders thinks Coyle’s cousin’s mispronunciation is unique; his mistakes change language into something exciting. In contrast to Anders’s adulthood, where others’ use of language inspires contempt, Anders’s youth is characterized by a deep appreciation and respect for other people’s words.
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While this memory is playing out, the bullet is still traveling through Anders’s brain, bringing him closer to his inevitable death. But Anders’s memory of his childhood baseball game gives him time to relive his happier past and to recapture his innocence. In his memory, he is still a boy in the outfield, playing baseball and repeating, “They is, they is, they is.”
The bullet in Anders’s brain is inescapably fatal, and he will die a jaded book critic. Before the bullet exits his skull, however, he has time to get lost in memorieshe can remember a time when language provoked wonder, not cynicism or contempt.
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