Thursday, December 29, 2011

Sticking the Landing (and avoiding the faceplant)

With ‘First Line Fridays’ we talk pretty regularly about beginnings, so sooner or later it only makes sense that we make some noise about endings. Today we’ll tell a tale of two stories; both by the same author, and both incredibly compelling up until that crucial moment at the end. One of them gets a fantastic ending, and the other is maddeningly bad. If you want to make your own assessment before I begin my bloviation, take a few minutes to read "Class Picture" and "Bullet in the Brain", both by the very talented Tobias Wolff.

The Faceplant:

Let’s start with “Class Picture.” This is a story that I loved right off the bat, and one that just continued to grow on me as Wolff brought the thing to a crescendo. Here’s the premise: students in a Dead Poets Society-style prep school await the arrival of the poet Robert Frost. A poetry contest judged by Mr. Frost will determine which of the boys will be awarded a personal appointment with the great man. What follows is a fascinating look at prep-school politics and the rivalry between young, aspiring men of letters. The fragments of poems and stories are especially funny, like when the narrator and his roommate poke fun at Hemingway:

“That is your bed, and it is a good bed, and you must make it and you must make it well.

“Today is the day of meat loaf. The meat loaf is swell. It is swell but when it is gone the not-having meat loaf is tragic and the meatloaf man will not come anymore.”
Anyway, despite the narrator’s best efforts, it is his friend George who wins the honor with a poem entitled “First Frost.” Still, we anxiously await whatever words of wisdom the great poet will share with the winner. I'm sad to say that it has been longed for and built up and fought over for so long that when the great moment arrives, Wolff performs the storytelling equivalent of a bellyflop:

'Mr. Frost told me I was wasting my time in school. He said I should go to Kamchatka. Or Brazil."
There is some confused debate between the two boys about what the advice could possibly mean, and then the story closes with the narrator’s search for answers in the library:
I closed the encyclopedia and sat listening to the wind rattle the mullioned panes behind me. What was it about Kamchatka, that a young writer should forsake his schooling and go there? Spectacle, maybe. The drama of strange people living strangely. Danger. All this could be good matter for stories and poems. But Frost himself had lived in New England all his life at no cost to his art, and I wondered if he'd ever actually been there. I guessed not. But it meant something to him, Kamchatka, something to do with the writer's life, and what else could it mean but hardship? Solitude, darkness, and hardship. But he had also mentioned Brazil. I rose from my deep chair and crossed the room past boys dozing over books and exchanged the "K" volume for "B."

And that's it. Ugh. You can tell me I missed the whole point of that ending, and you can tell me it was an intentional letdown, but you can’t tell me it’s anything other than a turd in the punchbowl. Or if that’s too strong, at least a band-aid in the ice bucket. And let me state once again: I absolutely loved that story up until that dud of an ending. But hey, the New Yorker bought it, so what do I know. On to the next ending!

The Perfect 10:

“Bullet in the Brain” is the story of a book critic, Anders, who finds himself at the center of a bank robbery. Upon entering the bank he criticizes the woman in front of him in line, criticizes the canned jargon of the jittery robbers who break in and, with a pistol under his chin, criticizes the fresco on the ceiling of the bank. He finally bursts into laughter when the hold-up man threatens him with that ultimate cliché of warning, “capiche,” and as the title of the story foreshadows, he get a bullet right through his brain.

But here’s where Wolff takes the story to another level. After some quick anatomical description of the damage to Anders’s grey matter, he recounts all the images one might expect to have flashed before his eyes in such a moment. And then, he focuses our attention so beautifully on the unexpected, fleeting memory that did become his last.

You’ve got the link above, so I won’t spoil the imagery for you here, but what Wolff does with the ending is turn this story into a profound statement about language and words and “their pure unexpectedness and their music.” He transports us from what is essentially a dark comedy at the beginning, to a deeply moving look at life’s smallest moments at the end. It’s an incredible finesse job, and an incredible ending to a great story.

What did you think? Anyone want to pile on? Contradict? Share other good or bad endings?


  1. Class Picture is easily one of my favorite short stories. And i agree, I loved it until the end, when it completely fizzles. I've read it a few times, and I've always wondered if Frost just didn't know how to end it. Or if there is not a good way to end it. I wouldn't know how to finish it either.

    But agreed, 95% of the story is outstanding.

  2. Sorry, I meant Wolff, not Frost. As in, "Wolff didn't know how to end it."

  3. Just read "Bullet in the Brain." It's good, really good, including the ending.

    Spot on MacEvoy!