Pancake, Breece D'J (Short Story Criticism)
Breece D'J Pancake 1952–-1979
(Born Breece Dexter Pancake) American short story writer.
The following entry presents an overview of Pancake's short fiction career through 2002.
Pancake is known for his critically acclaimed collection of short stories, The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake (1983). Published four years after Pancake's death, the volume is his only published work and features stories set in the Appalachia region of rural West Virginia. His spare, direct style of writing and his focus on young, masculine protagonists have inspired comparisons to the short stories of Ernest Hemingway.
Pancake was born on June 29, 1952, in Kanawha County, West Virginia. He attended West Virginia Wesleyan College in 1970 and received his B.A. from Marshall University in 1974. For a few years after receiving his undergraduate degree, he taught at Fork Union Military Academy and Staunton Military Academy. He did graduate study at the University of Virginia in the late 1970s. His first published story, “Trilobites,” appeared in The Atlantic Monthly in 1977. In the ensuing months the magazine was inundated with requests from readers for more of Pancake's short fiction. In 1978 they published another of his short stories, “In the Dry.” On April 8, 1979, Pancake died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. His only collection of short fiction, The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake, was published posthumously in 1983. The volume garnered laudatory reviews from critics and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Set in the impoverished, rural Appalachia region of West Virginia, Pancake's stories address the tenuous nature of emotional and sexual intimacy, issues of emptiness and isolation, and the role of violence and fate in the lives of individuals. “In the Dry” chronicles the visit of Ottie, a nonunion truck driver, to his foster family in Appalachia. During the brief visit, Ottie's foster family is disturbed by his presence: his father taunts him; his mother barely tolerates him; his disabled friend's discomfort serves to remind Ottie of his role in the car accident that caused his friend's injuries; and his foster sister desires a sexual relationship with him. “Fox Hunters” recounts the story of sixteen-year-old Bo Holly as he participates in his first foxhunt. Initially Bo joins in the macho ritual of drinking and bragging, but ends up vomiting from the alcohol and attempting to shoot the hunting dogs in order to save the fox. In Pancake's best-known story, “Trilobites,” a young man named Colly reflects on his deceased father and his unfulfilling life on the family's farm. Like the fossils covered by rock and sediment for which he searches, Colly feels trapped by circumstance. After hearing from his mother that the farm might be sold, Colly has a furtive sexual encounter with his old girlfriend and considers retracing his father's overseas travels.
The reaction to The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake from readers and critics alike was almost universally positive. Reviewers praised Pancake's strong sense of place and deft utilization of detail to evoke the loneliness and desperation of life in the Appalachia region of West Virginia. His short stories are often compared to those of Ernest Hemingway, particularly for his spare, direct style and his focus on rough, macho male characters. Other critics have found parallels between his work and that of Flannery O'Connor, Sherwood Anderson, John Steinbeck, and James Joyce. Pancake has been considered a regional writer, and his place within the tradition of Southern literature has been another topic of critical discussion. Recent commentators have investigated his status as cult figure and question whether his work actually lives up to its exceptional reputation.
SOURCE: Vigderman, Patricia. “K-Marts and Failing Farms.” The Nation 236, no. 11 (19 March 1983): 345-47.
[In the following excerpt, Vigderman favorably compares Pancake's short stories to Bobbie Mason's Shiloh and Other Stories, asserting that Pancake's fiction “offers the deep pleasure of art created out of the need to transform suffering.”]
It's all the more exciting, therefore, to turn to The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake, for here is fiction that offers the deep pleasure of art created out of the need to transform suffering. Four years ago, before he was quite 27, Pancake killed himself. These twelve stories are all we will ever have from him, but they may well be read for generations to come.
While [Bobbie] Mason's characters are sociological types, Pancake's are individuals who act out of the kinds of necessity present in our own lives. We are not tourists in his fiction, but residents. Pancake's characters, like Mason's, belong to rural America. Mason's territory, though, is a gentle Kentucky, overrun by K-Marts and Datsun dealerships; Pancake's is West Virginia—hard, rocky and infertile, carved out of land five other states didn't want. From this damp and chilly landscape, from failing farms and young men who leave them to work as miners or truck-drivers or gas-station attendants, Pancake creates stories that are as carefully (and wittily) observed as...
(The entire section is 1082 words.)
SOURCE: Merkin, Daphne. “The Aura of Suicide.” New Republic 188 (9 May 1983): 36-7.
[In the following review, Merkin asserts that the stories comprising The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake do not live up to their critical reputation.]
Suicides are special cases: they demonstrate, beyond recall, the grimmest of convictions about life; we walk on tiptoe around them. Writers who kill themselves, it seems to me, are doubly silencing. The act casts so long a shadow across the work that to try and speak in terms of talent rather than of pain is to indicate one's own lack of feeling. And perhaps, however indirectly, this is part of the intention. It is certainly evident that literary suicides succeed in doing themselves out of a genuinely critical appreciation; what they get instead is the most uneasy kind of praise. I am thinking especially of younger writers, about whom there is no way to discuss the usual, workaday considerations—signs of promise or limitations, guesses as to how the writer might develop and thoughts on the direction he or she would best not take. There is only the critic, properly elegiac or improperly picking at bones.
The reviews of The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake have been uniformly reverent: look, we have been told, what a gift shone briefly in our midst. Robert Towers wrote an attentive, generously inclined piece in The New York...
(The entire section is 1594 words.)
SOURCE: Nelson, Raymond. “Hills of Home.” Virginia Quarterly Review 60, no. 1 (winter 1984): 169-73.
[In the following review, Nelson explores the defining characteristics of Pancake's short stories.]
Breece David John Pancake was blessed or cursed with the true creative gift. In 1979 he called off his experiment with life, just as he was coming into full possession of his talent. At least for the time being, those facts of biography are likely to dominate responses to his work. The elegiac note has already crept into early reviews of this remarkable first and last book of stories [The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake], and it informs the memorial essays contributed by James Alan McPherson and John Casey to the extent that the fiction, which only yesterday startled Casey with its quality, is left all but unremarked. Probably that is as it should be. There are things that must be said about loss, confusion, and pain; art can take care of itself. The linked mysteries of creativity and death may initially heighten the appeal of Pancake's pages, but readers will return to them for their sureness and variety of character, their clarity of life imagined and made known. Everything else is unreclaimable now.
The stories, an even dozen of them, are written in a sparse, hard-boiled regional vernacular and are often aggressively masculine in posture. McPherson properly notes the influence...
(The entire section is 1596 words.)
SOURCE: Hendrickson, Paul. “The Legend of Breece D'J Pancake.” Washington Post (10 December 1984): C1, C6.
[In the following review, Hendrickson provides an interview with Pancake's mother and an overview of Pancake's life and career.]
To get there, you take I-64 and blur by towns named Nitro and Hurricane. Off to the side are giant generator cones spewing fumes into a yellow sky. Pumps suck at ancient gas fields in the earth: Union Carbide, not coal, is king in this corner of West Virginia, which is down below Charleston, where the Mud River winds and the fields are green with corn and cane.
“Well, Lordy, look what you brought,” says the woman in the doorway, taking up you and your flowers in nearly the same embrace. She is tall, in flat shoes, and there is a pressed handkerchief in her dress pocket. From the kitchen comes an aroma of something Sunday simmering in a pot. On the phone Helen Pancake had said, “You'll come for lunch, of course. That's the way we do.” She has the same linear features and big bones you remember from photographs of her son.
Helen Pancake is the mother of Breece D'J Pancake, a gifted writer who killed himself five years ago, on Palm Sunday, just at the moment of his probable fame. He was 26. He died on the outskirts of Charlottesville, a few hours after he had attended mass. That is one of the mysteries. “If I weren't a good...
(The entire section is 3459 words.)
SOURCE: High, Ellesa Clay. “A Lost Generation: The Appalachia of Breece D'J Pancake.” Appalachian Journal 13, no. 1 (fall 1985): 34-40.
[In the following essay, High investigates the role of kinship in Pancake's short stories.]
Where do we go from a world of insanity? Somewhere on the other side of pain.
—T. S. Eliot
Country roads, take me home To the place I belong, West Virginia, Mountain Momma, Take me home, country roads.
The fine old Appalachian institution of “kinship” extends far beyond the nuclear family, embracing ranks of ancestors as well as a network of living relatives (often generically referred to as “cousins”) which links hollow to hollow, town to town. The Appalachian family's affinity to place is also an affinity for one another; it's not surprising to find Alex Haley, that famous tracker of roots, currently researching a book there. The term “oral history” itself resonates with Appalachian connotations through a multitude of publications. One of the most popular collections of American folk culture has been the Foxfire series, which originated in the region. And there's a recent grand reunion of a book, Generations: An American Family (University Press of Kentucky, 1983), by John Egerton. Egerton says he searched hard to find a family for whom “history was a concrete and...
(The entire section is 3992 words.)
SOURCE: Harpham, Geoffrey Galt. “Short Stack: The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake.” Studies in Short Fiction 23, no. 3 (summer 1986): 265-73.
[In the following essay, Harpham contrasts Pancake's stories with those of James Joyce, perceiving the short story as the suitable genre for Pancake's ability as a writer.]
One difference between the short story and the novel can be seen in the fact that while the death of the novel has been heralded since the beginning of Modernism, nobody has proclaimed the demise of the short story. While the novel seems an art form unusually responsive to and dependent upon particular cultural and ideological conditions, the short story has flourished in apparent independence from such conditions. One reason for this might be that the short story, like the arachnids, can base its survival on its structural primitivism: an uncomplicated and hardy form, it can weather violent changes in the cultural ecosystem in a way that the novel, with its more complex representation of time, plot and character, cannot. The survival of the novel has for the past eighty years or so been precarious in a “non-novelistic” world, but the world has never disposed itself in a configuration hostile to the short story.
This extraordinary survival capacity reflects an idea of character that seems relatively impervious to ideological influence. The novel, particularly the...
(The entire section is 4352 words.)
SOURCE: Wilhelm, Albert. “Poverty of Spirit in Breece Pancake's Short Fiction.” Critique 28, no. 1 (fall 1986): 39-44.
[In the following essay, Wilhelm identifies poverty of spirit as a unifying theme in Pancake's stories.]
In 1979 when Breece D'J Pancake committed suicide at the age of twenty-six, he left behind a collection of short stories that has received wide critical acclaim. Pancake was born in Milton, West Virginia, in 1952. He attended Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia, and later participated in the creative writing graduate program at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. While he was still alive, many of Pancake's stories appeared in The Atlantic. After his death the major stories were collected in a volume published by Little, Brown and Company.
In examining the stories in this collection, the reader quickly notes some recurring scenes, common character types, and persistent themes. With the exception of one brief story which is set in Texas, all the rest apparently take place in Pancake's native West Virginia. These West Virginia stories provide a rather monotonous landscape “of ancient weathered hills and hollows, of half-abandoned mining villages, rusting trailers … sad cafes, and impoverished farms” (Towers, 11). To be sure, West Virginia has no monopoly on poverty, but the inhabitants of Pancake's fictional land seem to be...
(The entire section is 2798 words.)
SOURCE: Kadohata, Cynthia. “Breece D'J Pancake.” Mississippi Review 18, no. 1 (1989): 35-61.
[In the following essay, Kadohata offers a biographical and critical profile of Pancake.]
A few years ago, when I first read Breece D'J Pancake's stories, I knew I had to know more about him. The Atlantic Monthly Press published his collection of stories in 1983, four years after he killed himself at age twenty-six. The collection, tense and paradoxical with startling descriptions, is written as if Pancake were possessed by his home state of West Virginia the way you can be possessed by another person. The paradox is here: these are stories about the power of redemption that are also about the power of sin, stories about estrangement and empathy, stories about disorder in which everything seems to happen for a reason, stories about leaving that are also—always—about staying.
I went to search for Pancake this year, starting out by taking a bus to West Virginia. The way I ultimately felt about parts of Breece's life was the way I also feel whenever I travel by road. I can't tell whether things strike me because they're so surreal or because they're so real—the homeless women who surprise me when I emerge from a stall at the Port Authority bathroom and find they've clustered noiselessly about my door, waiting for me; the luminous White House filling the bus windows; the way the radio...
(The entire section is 9239 words.)
SOURCE: Montrose, David. “In a Melancholy State.” Times Literary Supplement (23 October 1992): 21.
[In the following mixed review, Montrose deems Trilobites and Other Stories “an intimately frustrating memorial, testifying to potential rather than achievement.”]
On April 8, 1979, at Charlottesville, Virginia, Breece D'J Pancake blew out his brains with a shotgun. He was twenty-six. In 1983, thanks to the efforts of Pancake's widowed mother and admiring literary figures, his fictional oeuvre—this collection of stories—was published in America and earned a coterie following; now, thanks to a long-standing devotee at Secker, it has reached Britain.
These facts prompt memories of John Kennedy Toole, who, in 1969, killed himself following repeated rejections of his masterly novel, A Confederacy of Dunces (which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1981). Pancake's circumstances, though, were different: he had held a creative writing fellowship, had established contacts, been accepted by Atlantic Monthly. From the volume's foreword by James Alan McPherson and afterword by John Casey, it appears he was a victim of his own “constitutional melancholy.” Certainly, that emotion pervades these twelve stories, which largely concern Pancake's native West Virginia, in particular the lower rungs (to which he did not belong) of that notoriously poor state: the farmers,...
(The entire section is 627 words.)
SOURCE: Stevens, David. “Writing Region Across the Border: Two Stories of Breece Pancake and Alistair MacLeod.” Studies in Short Fiction 33, no. 2 (spring 1996): 263-71.
[In the following essay, Stevens considers Pancake and the Canadian writer Alistair MacLeod as regional writers.]
In a Tennessee folk tale from the early twentieth century, a Yankee traveling salesman receives a dose of regional wisdom when his car breaks down in the southern backwoods.
Judging from the last hour of his trip, the salesman decided his best chance of reaching civilization lay in abandoning the road and cutting through the surrounding forest, which he did, only to find himself hopelessly lost minutes later. Luckily a young farm-boy was hunting nearby and offered to guide the salesman to the nearest service station. Grateful for this rescue, the salesman tried to strike up a conversation with the boy along the way. “That's a mighty fine rifle you have,” he told the boy, who shrugged and responded, “It's the same rifle my granddad carried in the Civil War.”
Duly impressed, the salesman asked if he could take a look at it, so the boy stopped and handed him the gun. The salesman turned it over in his hands. “That's a good-looking barrel to have gone through the Civil War,” he said.
(The entire section is 4241 words.)
SOURCE: Bottoms, Greg. “Sentimental, Heartbroken Rednecks.” Poets & Writers 29, no. 2 (September-October 2001): 19-25.
[In the following essay, Bottoms discusses Pancake as a Southern writer and offers a thematic overview of his short fiction.]
Unless a writer is extremely old when he dies, in which case he has probably become a neglected institution, his death must always seem untimely. This is because a real writer is always shifting and changing and searching. The world has many labels for him, of which the most treacherous is the label of Success.
—James Baldwin, “Alas, Poor Richard”
I came across The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake, a bent-spined book wedged back among other fictions, while not shelving at a university library when I was 20. My job, before they “asked me to leave,” was late-shift shelver. I chose to work the late shift because no supervisors and very few students were around. My non-shelving went like this: At nine each night I would take a full cart of books—a big, scratched, wooden thing with whistling black wheels the size of golf balls—up to the fourth floor (Quiet Study), find a secluded aisle, and, picking books nearly at random from the shelves or from the cart I wasn't going to unload, read first sentences until I found just the right tone and rhythm—sometimes the hard...
(The entire section is 4245 words.)
SOURCE: Reynolds, Susan Salter. “Discoveries.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (7 July 2002): R-15.
[In the following review, Reynolds investigates the role of shame in Pancake's short stories.]
Some writing comes from the ego, some from the id. Breece Pancake is one of those writers who burst on the world with great promise, publishing his story “Trilobites” in The Atlantic in 1977, but left in great sorrow, shooting himself. His brief oeuvre is all id: rough and random and sometimes irrational. It is often hard to tell whom the main character in these stories is talking to, his dogs or his woman (both are called “her” or “she”).
One story begins from the point of view of a possum, scurrying to get her babies across the road. The characters are “crackers,” low-class whites in West Virginia. Some of their values—tolerant of sex with minors, or jokes about sex with minors, or racism—are so distasteful. It's not a question of being PC or not PC; something just smells bad. Women are always leaving in these stories; in fact, there's nothing close to love as we know it. There's regret and guilt and silence and shyness but no love. Life is hard when nothing is put into words, and even the landscape reflects that emptiness. “The passing of an autumn night left no mark on the patchwork blacktop.”
In his afterword, Andre Dubus III...
(The entire section is 286 words.)
Casey, John. Afterword to The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake, by Breece D'J Pancake, pp. 171-78. Boston: The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1983.
Reflects on the author's friendship with Pancake.
Douglass, Thomas E. A Room Forever: The Life, Work, and Letters of Breece D'J Pancake. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1998, 260 p.
Book-length study on Pancake's life and work.
Finnegan, Brian. “Road Stories that Stay Home: Car and Driver in Appalachia and The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake.” Southern Literary Journal 29, no. 2 (spring 1997): 87-102.
Treats themes of the automobile and flight in Pancake's tales.
Freeman, Angela B. “The Origins and Fortunes of Negativity: The West Virginia Worlds of Kromer, Pancake, and Benedict.” Appalachian Journal: A Regional Studies Review 25, no. 3 (spring 1998): 244-69.
Compares Pancake to other West Virginia authors.
Kakutani, Michiko. Review of The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake, by Breece D'J Pancake. New York Times (15 May 1984): 23.
Asserts that although The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake is “flawed by a certain sameness of tone and occasional lapses into adolescent sentimentality, it...
(The entire section is 219 words.)