The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake
From 1975 until he committed suicide in 1979, Breece Pancake was a graduate student in the University of Virginia’s creative writing program. During his years at Virginia, he studied with James Alan McPherson and John Casey, he did some teaching, and he sold several stories to The Atlantic. After Pancake’s death, McPherson and Casey, who had been the younger man’s friends as well as his mentors, gathered his published stories and a number of others into a collection, to which McPherson contributed a foreword and Casey an afterword. The two elegiac essays, and the twelve stories they frame, raise many questions, not only about Pancake’s fiction but also about the connections between the work and the life. More than most books, The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake invites the reader to reflect on the complicated relation between a writer’s emotional realities and the fiction he creates.
Pancake apparently worked on his writing with industry and exactitude. Casey testifies to “the pages of notes, the sketches, the numbers of drafts, the fierce marginal notes to himself to expand this, to contract that,” and McPherson points out that Pancake’s most important model was Ernest Hemingway, whose syntax and subject matter Pancake found compatible with his own inclinations. In the best of the stories, this dedication to craft is clearly evident. Details overlap and merge to create a texture that is at once rich and economical in its portrayal of Pancake’s native West Virginia, where, in McPherson’s words, the eye is “trained to look either up or down: from the hollows up toward the sky or from the encircling hills down into the hollows.” In his brilliant evocation of the particularities of this place, of its people, their labor, and their talk, Pancake places himself within the tradition of Southern regional writing. His West Virginia is not the home of gentility and good breeding, as is, say, Peter Taylor’s Tennessee, but a place where brawling, cockfighting, and sometimes even murder punctuate the grim repetitiveness of farming and mining. At his best, Pancake writes about these subjects with so much energy and intensity that it saddens, even embarrasses the reader to come upon the stories in this collection—like “The Way It Has to Be” and “First Day of Winter”—that he undoubtedly would have made fuller and richer, or discarded altogether, had he lived to work on them.
To be sure, McPherson and Casey have carefully arranged the collection so that the stronger stories prop up the weaker ones. “Trilobites,” one of the finest pieces, stands first. Its narrative has a meditative quality which Pancake achieves by using the present tense for his grief-stricken protagonist’s interior monologue. Colly is counting up his losses: His father is dead, killed by a shell fragment left from a war wound; the family farm is about to be sold; his sweetheart, Ginny, has defected to a college in Florida and has a new lover. Colly tries to tell himself that “geology doesn’t mean lick to me,” but Pancake makes the reader see the parallel between Colly’s unsuccessful search for trilobites and his effort to come to terms with the ways the past shapes the present, and also with the ultimate insignificance of the individual life, however intensely lived it might be.
“In the Dry,” the collection’s penultimate story, is more intricately plotted than “Trilobites,” but its themes are similar. Its central figure, Ottie, is a truck driver who has come back to visit his foster family, the Gerlocks, at their home place during a season of drought. Pancake uses Ottie’s memories and the dialogue of other characters to hint at the reason Ottie left the Gerlocks in the first place: He was involved in an accident which left Buster, a Gerlock cousin, completely paralyzed. The Gerlocks blame Ottie for Buster’s condition, but Ottie knows that Buster himself caused the accident. Pancake’s hand is quiet and sure as he reveals, through Ottie’s perceptions, the reasons for Buster’s seemingly unmotivated violence. The scriptural reference which gives the story its title weaves in and out of Ottie’s consciousness, reminding the reader that however remote Pancake’s West Virginia may be from T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, both landscapes are desolate and drought-stricken.
“Trilobites” and “In the Dry” stand out because of the way Pancake makes their protagonists reflect on the vast sweep of geological time. Both young men are fascinated by fossils and bones, the artifacts of a remote past, and both perceive their present actions in the context of their own eventual disappearance from the scene. At the end of “Trilobites,” Colly feels his “fear moving away...
(The entire section is 1943 words.)