A while back I picked up a ringing phone in our workroom and it was a man asking if we had a copy of Tobias Wolff’s new book of short stories, which he had read about in The Listener, that we could send out to Remuera Community Library for him. Our copies were all out, but here’s the thing, one of them was out to me. “Have you read it yet?” he asked me when I told him. Well, not really, not yet, just what fit in on the bus trip home.
“Did you read the one called “Bullet in the Brain” he went on. Umm, not sure, but it sounds familiar. “About a man getting shot during a bank robbery, he makes the robber angry by talking back and he gets shot.” I cast my mind about energetically but no Tobias Wolff stories about bank robbery appeared on the horizon. “The review says it’s one of the best stories ever written.” I started to feel on the spot. Everything was being crowded out of my mind by images of Bill Murray robbing the bank dressed as a clown in that genius film "Quick Change" and fragments of a Thurberian “battle of the sexes” joke in which a henpecked husband gets his wife shot during a bank robbery, told to me years ago by a retired Royal Navy Commander of that generation which did lots of crossword puzzles and told that kind of joke.
He told me he wasn’t a computer user, the man from Remuera, so he will never actually see the photo, which is all right, but I wish I could tell him that it turned out I actually had read “Bullet in the brain”, not in the new book, but in the other Tobias Wolff book, a military-coloured Vintage paperback which probably won’t show up in the photo, as my father’s name and the date – 1996 – in his handwriting on the inside flypaper never could.
I only realized it half way through re-reading it, because it is the final three pages of the story, past the robbery part, which knock the breath out of me. I agree wholeheartedly with The Listener reviewer, whoever it was. “Bullet in the brain” is a perfect short story. It is unbelievable how finely crafted it is, the symbiosis between the way the story is being told and what it is telling, the jerky preamble, the explosion, the suspension, accelerating to the sharp, sweet ending which reaches into the deepest part of us.
I asked myself what other perfect short stories I know. “A perfect day for banana fish” by JD Salinger; several of Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories -- “The three day blow”, “Indian camp” and also “The Killers”, and “My old man”, which isn’t a Nick Adams story but still by Hemingway; “Goodbye my brother” and a couple of others by John Cheever. Joyce's "The dead" but also another story in Dubliners, the one about the man who desperately wants to leave work to go have a drink, and he can’t because they’d see that his hat isn’t hanging on the hat rack. I’d be really happy to get anyone else’s suggestions. I’m not really as much like Miss Jean Brodie as I sometimes sound (“Who is the greatest Italian painter, Rose?” “Leonardo da Vinci, Miss Brodie.” “No, it is Giotto. He is my favourite”).