Die of a Sort of Creeping Common Sense

“Nowadays most people die of a sort of creeping common sense, and discover when it is too late that the only things one never regrets are one’s mistakes.”
― Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

Sculpture, Tree welded from cable, DCCCD Bill J. Priest Institute for Economic Development, Dallas, Texas

Oblique Strategy: Honor thy error as a hidden intention

After a long day of not getting much done I found myself bereft of ideas. My computer has thousands of text files that I have typed up to remember things, going back twenty years, and I decided to peruse them and see if I could find something useful.

I came across this quote about a Chekhov short story by one of my favorite writers, Tobias Wolff:

There’s a wonderful story of his about a soldier who’s returning from Manchuria, dying on a troop ship, but too ignorant to realize he’s dying. He was a brute, and that comes through, but he also has a very tender side. So he dies, in this state of longing and unredeemed ignorance, and most stories would end there. But Chekhov has the burial at sea, and then he follows the body, the weighted body going down and down and down. And a shark comes up, and nudges it, and swims away. And then he moves the vision back up to the sea and the sky where just at that moment the sun is breaking through the clouds and he talks about the light dancing on the water — and I’m trying to get this right — with a sort of joy for which there is no word in the language of men. So you get this tragic thing, this man dying in complete ignorance, a man with all the goodness in his heart that was never realized, so you have that incredible focus on the individual. And then suddenly he opens it up so we can see where we fit into this and how small it is. It doesn’t diminish your feeling for the character, but it gives you a sense of the finitude of our duration here and our problems. He’s an amazing writer. I love Chekhov. I could go on all day about him.

What an amazing story review. I, too, love Chekhov, but I doubt that the story will be as good as this review.

I don’t know, maybe it’s better. A quick Google search and I found the name of the story is Gusev.

It’s readily available online. Here’s one translation:

Gusev by Anton Chekhov, translated by Constance Garnett

I’m going off to read it now – I suggest you do likewise.

A Month of Short Stories 2015, Day 4 – Bullet in the Brain

The last two years, for the month of June, I wrote about a short story that was available online each day of the month… you can see the list for 2014 and 2015 in the comments for this page. It seemed like a good idea at the time. My blog readership fell precipitously and nobody seemed to give a damn about what I was doing – which was a surprising amount of work.

Because of this result, I’m going to do it again this year.

Today’s story, for day four – Bullet in the Brain , by Tobias Wolff
Read it online here:

Bullet in the Brain

I have always had a soft spot for Tobias Wolff. First of all – he’s a crackerjack writer. Probably best known for his memoir This Boy’s Life (made into a film starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro); I especially love his short stories. In the Garden of the North American Martyrs is among the best.


Plus, there is this little story. He had come to Dallas to speak and read from a new novel, “Old School.” It was part of the Dallas Arts and Letters Live series at the Dallas Museum of Art. I was excited to go.

However, since I have no money, I couldn’t afford to sit in the main auditorium. There were discounted seats in the museum theater, where you could watch the lecture on a large closed-circuit screen. Almost as good as live, but a lot cheaper.

Right before the lecture, I look up, and there is Tobias Wolff standing right in front of me. He had heard about the handful of us in the remote room and come down to get us. He spoke and then led us to a row of seats he had installed in the front row of the auditorium, where we were able to sit.

Pretty damn cool.

Today’s story is Bullet in the Brain.

It is a little bit gimmicky – it reminds me a lot of the classic An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. It’s interesting, especially given Wolff’s penchant for creative nonfiction, that the protagonist/victim is a particularly vile and self-centered literary critic. I’d bet that Tobias Wolff had someone (or more than one) – a particular person in mind and enjoyed writing about him coming to such an ignominious end.

But it is still the work of a genius. As a wannabe writer I was gobsmacked by this simple sentence:

“She looked at him with drowning eyes.”

That is a perfect sentence – I can’t imagine anything else being there.

Someone without the required skills, someone such as I, might write something like:

“She looked at him and he turned away.”


“She looked at him with a running nose.”

Or worse:

“She looked at him with a triangle of spinach stuck to an incisor.”

Or ever worse:

“She looked at him the way his ex-wife always did and his intestines instantly doubled in knots, causing him to keel over in agony.”

But he didn’t write anything terrible like that. He wrote the perfect sentence.

Short Story Day Twenty-Three – Hunters in the Snow

23. Hunters in the Snow
Tobias Wolff

This is day Twenty-three of my Month of Short Stories – a story a day for June.

Tobias Wolff is one of my favorite short story writers. His story In The Garden of the North American Martyrs is one of the best pieces of short fiction ever scribbled out.

I remember one time, years ago, he was giving a talk at the Dallas Museum of Art as part of the Arts & Letters Live series. Well, I’m poor and can’t afford the full price ticket to these lectures, but, for a pittance, you can attend and sit in an auditorium off to the side where the lecture is beamed in on a screen. I was sitting there, waiting with a few other people (the main room was packed) when I looked up and there was Tobias Wolff, walking between the rows talking to us. He said he didn’t think it was fair that we had to sit in the other room and had arranged for an extra row of seats down across the front. We all marched into the big room and saw the live lecture, thanks to the author.

It was better that way.

I’m afraid today’s story is one that I had read before – but had forgotten until I was about a third of the way in. That’s not surprising… I guess Wolff is another writer that I have read, if not everything, then almost all his output.

At any rate, it’s a good story, with a few differences from similar modern realistic tragedies. First, the origins of the story is pretty obvious. First, there’s the eponymous painting by Pieter Bruegel.

Hunters in the Snow, by Bruegel

Hunters in the Snow, by Bruegel

The tone of the story is different from the balanced and optimistic winter scene in the painting. A more accurate source of the story is an old joke about a man asking a hunter to shoot his old dog for him, as a favor.

That’s what is so odd and interesting about the story is the juxtaposition of the realistic horror of the situation and the humor that laces the story. It’s an odd combination – sort of like the three stooges, but the blows actually hurt.

Some juvenile delinquents had heaved a brick through the windshield on the driver’s side, so the cold and snow tunneled right into the cab. The heater didn’t work. They covered themselves with a couple of blankets Kenny had brought along and pulled down the muffs on their caps. Tub tried to keep his hands warm by rubbing them under the blanket but Frank made him stop.

They left Spokane and drove deep into the country, running along black lines of fences. The snow let up, but still there was no edge to the land where it met the sky. Nothing moved in the chalky fields. The cold bleached their faces and made the stubble stand out on their cheeks and along their upper lips. They stopped twice for coffee before they got to the woods where Kenny wanted to hunt.

Tub was for trying someplace different; two years in a row they’d been up and down this land and hadn’t seen a thing. Frank didn’t care one way or the other, he just wanted to get out of the goddamned truck. “Feel that,” Frank said, slamming the door. He spread his feet and closed his eyes and leaned his head way back and breathed deeply. “Tune in on that energy.”
—-Tobias Wolff, Hunters in the Snow