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Our Story Begins: New and Selected Stories

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Our Story Begins: New and Selected Stories Cover

ISBN13: 9781400095971
ISBN10: 1400095972
Condition: Standard
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Excerpt

Bullet in the Brain

Anders couldn't get to the bank until just before it closed, so of course the line was endless and he got stuck behind two women whose loud, stupid conversation put him in a murderous temper. He was never in the best of tempers anyway, Anders—a book critic known for the weary, elegant savagery with which he dispatched almost everything he reviewed.

With the line still doubled around the rope, one of the tellers stuck a POSITION CLOSED sign in her window and walked to the back of the bank, where she leaned against a desk and began to pass the time with a man shuffling papers. The women in front of Anders broke off their conversation and watched the teller with hatred. "Oh, that's nice," one of them said. She turned to Anders and added, confident of his accord, "One of those little human touches that keep us coming back for more."

Anders had conceived his own towering hatred of the teller, but he immediately turned it on the presumptuous crybaby in front of him. "Damned unfair," he said. "Tragic, really. If they're not chopping off the wrong leg or bombing your ancestral village, they're closing their positions."

She stood her ground. "I didn't say it was tragic," she said. "I just think it's a pretty lousy way to treat your customers."

"Unforgivable," Anders said. "Heaven will take note."

She sucked in her cheeks but stared past him and said nothing. Anders saw that her friend was looking in the same direction. And then the tellers stopped what they were doing, the other customers slowly turned, and silence came over the bank. Two men wearing black ski masks and blue business suits were standing to the side of the door. One of them had a pistol pressed against the guard's neck. The guard's eyes were closed, and his lips were moving. The other man had a sawed-off shotgun. "Keep your big mouth shut!" the man with the pistol said, though no one had spoken a word. "One of you tellers hits the alarm, you're all dead meat."

"Oh, bravo," Anders said. "'Dead meat.'" He turned to the woman in front of him. "Great script, eh? The stern, brass-knuckled poetry of the dangerous classes."

She looked at him with drowning eyes.

The man with the shotgun pushed the guard to his knees. He handed the shotgun to his partner and yanked the guard's wrists up behind his back and locked them together with a pair of handcuffs. He toppled him onto the floor with a kick between the shoulder blades, then took his shotgun back and went over to the security gate at the end of the counter. He was short and heavy and moved with peculiar slowness. "Buzz him in," his partner said. The man with the shotgun opened the gate and sauntered along the line of tellers, handing each of them a plastic bag. When he came to the empty position he looked over at the man with the pistol, who said, "Whose slot is that?"

Anders watched the teller. She put her hand to her throat and turned to the man she'd been talked to. He nodded. "Mine," she said.

"Then get your ugly ass in gear and fill that bag."

"There you go," Anders said to the woman in front of him. "Justice is done."

"Hey! Bright boy! Did I tell you to talk?"

"No," Anders said.

"Then shut your trap."

"Did you hear that?" Anders said. "'Bright boy.'" Right of out The Killers."

"Please, be quiet," the woman said.

"Hey, you deaf or what?" The man with the pistol walked over to Anders and poked the weapon into his gut. "You think I'm playing games?"

"No," Anders said, but the barrel tickled like a stiff finger and he had to fight back the titters. He did this by making himself stare into the man's eyes, which were clearly visible behind the holes in the mask: pale blue and rawly red rimmed. The man's left eyelid kept twitching. He breathed out a piercing, ammoniac smell that shocked Anders more than anything that had happened, and he was beginning to develop a sense of unease when the man prodded him again with the pistol.

"You like me, bright boy?" he said. "You want to suck my dick?"

"No," Anders said.

"Then stop looking at me."

Anders fixed his gaze on the man's shiny wing-tip shoes.

"Not down there. Up there." He stuck the pistol under Anders's chin and pushed it upward until he was looking at the ceiling.

Anders had never paid much attention to that part of the bank, a pompous old building with marble floors and counters and gilt scrollwork over the tellers' cages. The domed ceiling had been decorated with mythological figures whose fleshy, toga-draped ugliness Anders had taken in at a glance many years earlier and afterward declined to notice. Now he had no choice but to scrutinize the painter's work. It was even worse than he remembered, and all of it executed with the utmost gravity. The artist had a few tricks up his sleeve and used them again and again—a certain rosy blush on the underside of the clouds, a coy backward glance on the faces of the cupids and fauns. The ceiling was crowded with various dramas, but the one that caught Anders's eye was Zeus and Europa—portrayed, in this rendition, as a bull ogling a cow from behind a haystack. To make the cow sexy, the painter had canted her hips suggestively and given her long, droppy eyelashes through which she gazed back at the bull with sultry welcome. The bull wore a smirk and his eyebrows were arched. If there'd been a caption bubbling out of his mouth, it would have said HUBBA HUBBA.

"What's so funny, bright boy?"

"Nothing."

"You think I'm comical? You think I'm some kind of clown?"

"No."

"You think you can fuck with me?"

"No."

"Fuck with me again, you're history. Capiche?"

Anders burst out laughing. He covered his mouth with both hands and said, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry," then snorted helplessly through his fingers and said, "Capiche—oh, God, capiche," and at that the man with the pistol raised the pistol and shot Anders right through the head.

The bullet smashed Anders's skull and plowed through his brain and exited behind his right ear, scattering shards of bone into the cerebral cortex, the corpus callosum, back toward the basal ganglia, and down into the thalamus. But before all this occurred, the first appearance of the bullet in the cerebrum set off a crackling chain of ion transports and neurotransmissions. Because of their peculiar origin these traced a peculiar pattern, flukishly calling to life a summer afternoon some forty years past, and lost since lost to memory. After striking the cranium the bullet was moving at nine hundred feet per second, a pathetically sluggish, glacial pace compared with the synaptic lightning that flashed around it. Once in the brain, that is, the bullet came under the mediation of brain time, which gave Anders plenty of time to contemplate the scene that, in a phrase he would have abhorred, "passed before his eyes."

It is worth noting what Anders did not remember, given what he did recall. He did not remember his first lover, Sherry, or what he had most madly loved about her, before it came to irritate him—her unembarrassed carnality, and especially the cordial way she had with his unit, which she called Mr. Mole, as in Uh-oh, looks like Mr. Mole wants to play. Anders did not remember his wife, whom he had also loved before she exhausted him with her predictability, or his daughter, now a sullen professor of economics at Dartmouth. He did not remember standing just outside his daughter's door as she lectured her bear about his naughtiness and described the appalling punishments Paws would receive unless he changed his ways. He did not remember a single line of the hundreds of poems he had committed to memory in his youth so he could give himself the shivers at will—not "Silent, upon a peak in Darien," or "My God, I heard this day," or "All my pretty ones? Did you say all? O hell-kite! All?" None of these did he remember; not one. Anders did not remember his dying mother saying of his father, "I should have stabbed him in his sleep."

He did not remember Professor Josephs telling his class how Athenian prisoners in Sicily had been released if they could recite Aeschylus, and then reciting Aeschylus himself, right there, in the Greek. Anders did not remember how his eyes had burned at those sounds. He did not remember the surprise of seeing a college classmate's name on the dust jacket of a novel not long after they graduted, or the respect he had felt after reading the book. He did not remember the pleasure of giving respect.

Nor did Anders remember seeing a woman leap to her death from the building opposite his own just days after his daughter was born. He did not remember shouting, "Lord have mercy!" He did not remember deliberately crashing his father's car into a tree, or having his ribs kicked in by three policemen at an antiwar rally, or waking himself up with laughter. He did not remember when he began to regard the heap of books on his desk with boredom and dread, or when he grew angry at writers for writing them. He did not remember when everything began to remind him of something else.

This is what he remembered. Heat. A baseball field. Yellow grass, the whir of insects, himself leaning against a tree as the boys of the neighborhood gather for a pickup game. He looks on as the others argue the relative genius of Mantle and Mays. They have been worrying this subject all summer, and it has become tedious to Anders: an oppression, like the heat.

Then the last two boys arrive, Coyle and a cousin of his from Mississippi. Anders has never met Coyle's cousin before and will never see him again. He says hi with the rest but takes no further notice of him until they've chosen sides and someone asks the cousin what position he wants to play. "Shortshop," the boy says. "Short's the best position they is." Anders turns and looks at him. He wants to hear Coyle's cousin repeat what he's just said, though he knows better than to ask. The other's will think he's being a jerk, ragging the kid for his grammar. But that isn't it, not at all—it's that Anders is strangely roused, elated, by those two final words, their pure unexpectedness and their music. He takes the field in a trance, repeating them to himself.

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 talen 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.

From the Hardcover edition.

What Our Readers Are Saying

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Average customer rating based on 2 comments:

HasnulKarami, December 17, 2012 (view all comments by HasnulKarami)
Tobias Wolff is worthy to be mentioned among the greats of short story writing. Like Hemingway, his stories often begin in action, immediately capturing the attention. Like Chekhov, his endings break the flow of life and cast a reflection on our own weaknesses and strength. He has a fluid style and voice embedded in the rhythms of 21st American life. He's unobtrusive, yet knowing. He's streamlined in capturing every detail.
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Chris Horne, April 7, 2009 (view all comments by Chris Horne)
Let me say it straight out -- Tobias Wolff is an absolute genius in crafting stories. This collection -- ten absorbing new stories combined with twenty-one of his anthologized works -- is pitch perfect in every regard.

These are not stories that forces the reader to dig deep for symbolism and didacticism. Each is accessible, but each also presents a universal truth that somehow, someway, burrows its way straight into the reader's own mind and heart. This reader kept pausing and thinking, "But how did he KNOW that? How an he possibly be so empathetic and get it so darn RIGHT?"

There's the at-loose-ends professor with a one hopeful chance, who finally finds the courage to give back as much as is dished out to her. The hunters in the snow who stand up to a bully. The American in Rome who feels a strange connection with the gypsy who picked his pocket. A night in question, where filial connections are explored. A first love that never stops haunting the now successful man.

Many of these stories are ordinary occurrences that rise to the extraordinary. Many involve regular folks who gain the authenticity to truly become themselves...or to discover the meaning behind their lives and their actions. I know I will not soon forget many of these characters, who in ten or fifteen pages, solidly come to life.

For anyone who wants to explore the human condition -- our cowardice, our selfishness, our dreams, our connectiveness -- I urge you to read Tobias Wolff. He's the real thing.
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Product Details

ISBN:
9781400095971
Author:
Wolff, Tobias
Publisher:
Vintage Books
Subject:
Short Stories (single author)
Subject:
Literary
Subject:
Literature-A to Z
Copyright:
Edition Description:
Trade paper
Series:
Vintage Contemporaries
Publication Date:
20090431
Binding:
TRADE PAPER
Grade Level:
General/trade
Language:
English
Pages:
400
Dimensions:
8.06x5.32x.68 in. .60 lbs.

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Featured Titles » Literature
Fiction and Poetry » Literature » A to Z

Our Story Begins: New and Selected Stories Used Trade Paper
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$10.50 In Stock
Product details 400 pages Vintage Books USA - English 9781400095971 Reviews:
"Publishers Weekly Review" by , "Wolfe's latest round of philosophical and thought-provoking short stories is a rousing collection that spans a wide variety of genres and time periods. Anthony Heald brings the stories to life with vigor, offering fresh voices and complicated, flawed characters, each as original and believable as the last. Heald has a knack for performance, gifting each tale with his flare for theatrics while never trespassing outside of his range in an attempt to impress. His familiar voice abounds with colorful emotions and a certain melancholic ache. Listeners step inside all 21 tales and see the world as Wolfe himself must have: heartbreaking, hilarious and even a little scary at times. A Knopf hardcover (Reviews, Dec. 3, 2007)." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Review A Day" by , "Those who have read Wolff's memoir This Boy's Life...or his novel Old School may find some echoes in these stories, but overall the short fiction is more venturous and spirited. Wolff consistently finds ways to slip beyond the unfolding of events in a narrative sense, making his stories something of a chrysalis from which emerges something non-narrative — call it heart." (read the entire Chicago Tribune review)
"Review" by , "Richard Yates, Raymond Carver and Robert Stone are the modern masters whom Wolff most resembles. Like their best work, his own exhibits classic richness and depth, and it's built to last."
"Review" by , "Wolff dexterously probes, in immaculately clear prose, the cor eof ordinary peoples' passions and vulnerabilities."
"Review" by , "Wolff's voice is unfailingly authentic, while his embrace of the variety of American experience is knowing, forgiving and all-encompassing."
"Review" by , "This collection of new and selected stories...amounts to a master class in the genre....Wolff juggles style and content with seeming effortlessness, but the truth is that he is a disciplined craftsman with a hard-earned understanding of the two worlds, real and imagined, he inhabits."
"Review" by , "These stories remind how powerful and important are good stories, especially ones that look right into our furtive, yearning hearts and refuse to blink."
"Review" by , "Wolff's deceptively simple prose style is like listening to an old friend eagerly telling the previous night's adventures."
"Review" by , "Our Story may be the summation of Wolff's story-writing career to date, but as its title suggests, he clearly has more tales to tell, and thankfully for his readers, the undiminished storytelling gifts with which to tell them."
"Synopsis" by , This collection of stories — 21 classics followed by ten potent new stories — displays Tobias Wolff's exquisite gifts over a quarter century.
"Synopsis" by , Our Story Begins gathers 21 classics and 10 new stories from the author who The New York Times hails as "unfailingly authentic...his embrace of the variety of American experience is knowing, forgiving and all-encompassing."
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