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Breece D'J Pancake 1952–1979
(Born Breece Dexter Pancake) American short story writer.
The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake (1982), collected and published after Pancake's suicide, received favorable critical appraisal. Joyce Carol Oates compared Pancake's debut with that of Ernest Hemingway, whose gifts were apparent in his early stories. Like Hemingway, Pancake wrote in a spare, understated prose style and achieved striking effects from the precision of well-chosen detail. Pancake's sensibility was shaped by the West Virginia cultural and physical environment in which he was raised. His stories are set in the often harsh, infertile landscape of his home region; his characters and their circumstances echo the hopelessness of the settings.
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A writer, no matter what the context, is made an outsider by the demands of his vocation, and there was never any doubt in my mind that Breece Pancake was a writer. His style derived in large part from Hemingway, his themes from people and places he had known in West Virginia. His craftsmanship was exact, direct, unsentimental. His favorite comment was "Bullshit!" He wasted no words and rewrote ceaselessly for the precise effect he intended to convey. But constitutionally, Breece Pancake was a lonely and melancholy man. (p. 9)
Breece Pancake seemed driven to improve himself. His ambition was not primarily literary: he was struggling to define for himself an entire way of life, an all-embracing code of values that would allow him to live outside his home valley in Milton, West Virginia. The kind of books he gave me [when he was a student at the University of Virginia] may suggest the scope of his search: a biography of Jack London, Eugene O'Neill's plays about the sea—works that concern the perceptions of men who looked at nature in the raw. In his mid-twenties Breece joined the Catholic church and became active in church affairs. But I did not understand the focus of his life until I had driven through his home state, along those winding mountain roads, where at every turn one looks down at houses nestled in hollows. In those hollows, near those houses, there are abandoned cars and stoves and refrigerators. Nothing is thrown away by people in that region; some use is found for even the smallest evidence of affluence. And eyes, in that region, are trained to look either up or down: from the hollows up toward the sky or from the encircling hills down into the hollows. Horizontal vision, in that area, is rare. The sky there is circumscribed by insistent hillsides thrusting upward. It is an environment crafted by nature for the dreamer and for the resigned. (pp. 10-11)
It need not be emphasized that he was very self-conscious about the poverty of his state, and about its image in certain books. He told me he did not think much of Harry Caudill's Night Comes to the Cumberlands. He thought it presented an inaccurate image of his native ground, and his ambition, as a writer, was to improve on it. (pp. 11-12)Breece Pancake drank a great deal, and when he drank his imagination always returned to [the] same place. Within that private room, I think now, were stored all his old hurts and all his fantasies. When his imagination entered there, he became a melancholy man in great need of contact with other people. But because he was usually silent during these periods, his presence tended often to make other people nervous. (p. 13)
There was a mystery about Breece Pancake that I will not claim to have penetrated. This mystery is not racial; it had to do with that...
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small room into which his imagination retreated from time to time. (p. 15)
Looked at in purely sociological terms, Breece Pancake's work was helping people, giving to people. I think that part of him, the part of West Virginia that borders on Virginia, wanted to affirm those old, aristocratic, eighteenth-century values that no longer had a context, especially in Charlottesville. He was working toward becoming an aristocrat in blue jeans. But he was from the southern lower-middle class, his accent had certain associations, he could find no conventional way to express his own needs, and while he was alive there were many of us who could not understand who or what he was. (pp. 18-19)
James Alan McPherson, "Foreword" (foreword copyright © 1983 by James Alan McPherson; reprinted by permission of Brandt & Brandt Literary Agents, Inc.), in The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake by Breece D'J Pancake, Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1983, pp. 3-19.
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[Breece Pancake] had a very powerful sense of things. Almost all his stories are set in the part of West Virginia that he came from, and he knew that from top to bottom. He knew people's jobs, from the tools they used to how they felt about them. He knew the geology, the prehistory, and the history of his territory, not as a pastime but as such a deep part of himself that he couldn't help dreaming of it. One of the virtues of his writing is the powerful, careful gearing of the physical to the felt.
He worked as hard at his writing as anyone I've known, or known about. I've seen the pages of notes, the sketches, the numbers of drafts, the fierce marginal notes to himself to expand this, to contract that. And of course the final versions, as hard and brilliantly worn as train rails.
When he sold his first story to The Atlantic he scarcely took a breath. (He did do one thing by way of celebration. The galley proofs came back with the middle initials of his name set up oddly: Breece D'J Pancake. He said fine, let it stay that way. It made him laugh, and, I think, it eased his sense of strain—the strain of trying to get things perfect—to adopt an oddity committed by a fancy magazine.) He was glad, but the rhythm of his work didn't let him glory or even bask. He had expected a great deal from his work, and I think he began to feel its power, but he also felt he was still far from what he wanted.
Not long before Breece and I got to be friends, his father and his best friend both died. Sometime after that Breece decided to become a Roman Catholic and began taking instruction. I'm as uncertain finally about his conversion as I am about his suicide. I've thought about both a lot, and I can imagine a lot, but there is nothing certain I would dare say. Except that it was (and still is) startling to have had that much fierce passion so near, sometimes so close. (pp. 172-73)
As with his other knowledge and art, he took in his faith with intensity, almost as if he had a different, deeper measure of time. He was soon an older Catholic than I was. I began to feel that not only did he learn things fast, absorb them fast, but he aged them fast. His sense of things fed not only on his own life but on others' lives too. He had an authentic sense, even memory, of ways of being he couldn't have known first-hand. It seemed he'd taken in an older generation's experience along with (not in place of) his own. (p. 173)
Breece didn't know how good he was; he didn't know how much he knew; he didn't know that he was a swan instead of an ugly duckling. This difficulty subsided for Breece, but there was always some outsider bleakness to his daily life, a feeling that he was at the university on sufferance. (p. 174)
Breece had a dream about hunting that he logged in his notebooks, I think not long before he died. In the dream there were wooded mountains and grassy bottomland. Clear streams. Game was abundant. But best of all, when you shot a quail, a rabbit, or a deer, it fell dead and then popped back to life and darted off again.
There are a number of things that strike me about this dream. One is that it's about immortality and paradise. It is the happy hunting ground. And so it's still another case of a lore that Breece acquired sympathetically and folded into his own psyche. But the most powerful element is this: a theme of Breece's life and stories is the bending of violence into gentleness. He struggled hotly to be a gentle person. (p. 175)
John Casey, "Afterword" (afterword copyright © 1983 by John Casey; reprinted by permission of Brandt & Brandt Literary Agents, Inc.), in The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake by Breece D'J Pancake, Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1983, pp. 171-78.
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["The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake" offers twelve stories,] set in an impoverished region of West Virginia, by a young writer of such extraordinary gifts that one is tempted to compare his debut to Hemingway's, when the interrelated stories and prose pieces of "In Our Time" were published in 1924: this the good news. The tragic news is that this slender volume is all we will have of Breece D'J Pancake's work, since he committed suicide in 1979, when he was not quite 27 years old…. [The] stories—tense, elegiac, remorseless in their insistence on the past's dominion over the present—argue for a sensibility so finely honed, so vulnerable to the inexorable passage of time, that it is likely death appeared as a solace. As the stories make powerfully clear, Breece Pancake identified so intensely with the coal-mining and farming area of West Virginia in which he was born that he could not have failed to identify with its slow dying as well. (p. 1)
The protagonists of these stories are all male; most work at fairly low-paying and menial jobs. (Even the truck drivers are non unionized, scab labor.) They may be orphans who grew up with foster parents in households subsidized by welfare. They are miners suffering from undiagnosed (and unacknowledged) lung disease; they are ex-convicts, gas station attendants, tugboat workers, snow plow operators, organizers of outlawed cockfights, would-be "prizefighters" so desperate for money they fight in the most unprofessional and lethal of circumstances. It goes without saying that they drink a good deal and are brutal to women, including their wives. If they hunt for deer and squirrel, it isn't by way of diverting themselves with sport but simply because they need to eat. (Sometimes they have acquired a ravenous appetite for "wild meat.") They tend to spend time in taverns and run-down diners, in the depressing company of aging versions of themselves. If, like the near-anonymous narrator of "A Room Forever," they come accidentally into contact with women they might love, the relationship is destroyed because they are terrified of intimacy; and their women too have become brutalized.
The most powerful of the stories—"Trilobites," "Hollow," "Fox Hunters," "The Scrapper," "In the Dry"—are as compactly and tightly written as prose poems and should be read (and reread) with extreme care. The author's method is to create an atmosphere of extreme tension in his readers as well as in his protagonists. The stories' opening paragraphs often announce in embryo what will follow, so that the narrative is thematically complete before, in a sense, it begins, and one feels the inexorable bars of circumstance closing about the characters. And the writing, lean, taut, pared back, near-flawless in its uninflected cadences, is perfectly suited to its content.
In a relentlessly and unsparingly ugly story, "The Scrapper," a former professional boxer named Skeevy finds himself fighting a man who evidently wants to kill him, while onlookers shout and cheer. The situation is unpitying, unsentimental…. The no longer young truck driver of "In the Dry" returns to his home town to meet with a former sweetheart whom he finds an embittered old maid and, in a particularly painful sequence, with a former hell-raiser named Bus, now trapped in a wheel-chair and evidently ravaged by cancer. The trucker's panicked flight—he is a scab driver, bound for Milwaukee—will solve none of the problems of his life. The New Testament line alluded to in the story's title—"For if they do these things in a green tree, what shall be done in the dry?" (Luke 23:31)—is a lament that might well be an epigraph for the entire volume.
Like most posthumous collections, "The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake" is necessarily an uneven gathering, since the author did not live to organize his material and the editors were required to assemble enough work to fill out a volume of conventional length. But even the relatively weak stories—"Time and Again," for instance, which has a sort of comic book Gothicism—are nonetheless compelling; and Breece Pancake's eye and ear for detail are superb. So thoroughly does he know and sympathize with the people of his doomed region that one comes away immersed in their disparate yet tragically kindred fates—and rather depressed by the unalterable fact that a uniquely gifted young writer's canon is, with his first book, complete. (pp. 24-5)
Joyce Carol Oates, "From England to Brooklyn to West Virginia: 'The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake'," in The New York Times Book Review (copyright © 1983 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 13, 1983, pp. 1, 24-5.
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[The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake] is a satisfying volume, the world Breece Pancake created sandwiched by evocations of the creator himself. For many readers, these pages will be varnished with sadness for the writer who might have been; for me, the varnish is perhaps a shade darker, because I knew Breece slightly for the last four years of his life. How slightly I never realized until I picked up the bound galleys for this book.
We studied and taught together at the University of Virginia, where the master for young fiction writers was, and is, the short-story writer Peter Taylor. The most important thing Taylor had to teach, both through his work and his conversation, was that a writer must, to be more than a journeyman, have a subject—that is, a world all his own, a world he knows better than anyone else, knows so well in fact that he can extract from it what meaning there is. This was not something Breece needed to learn. The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake demonstrates most clearly that he had a subject: the hills and hollows of his native West Virginia, and the rough, painful lives that are lived there.
By far the best story in the collection is "Trilobites," the first Pancake published. Its theme is loss, and loss is everywhere in the story, pervading the ancient, mountainous landscape like the film of heat and gas that is the sky. In the course of a few hours we follow the protagonist, Colly, as he contemplates the recent death of his father, the defection of his girl friend, Ginny, for college in Florida and the world beyond their small gas-company town, the failure of the family farm since his father's death, and his mother's decision to sell the farm, and herself leave town for a new life in Akron. These personal losses of Colly's are echoed and re-echoed throughout the story. His father's friend, Jim, whom he sees in a cafe at the beginning of the story, drinks his coffee from one of four cups hanging in the window. The other three cups belonged to men now dead, including Colly's father. (p. 3)
Ginny's mother deserted her father just as she deserts Colly. Ran off with a "feisty little I-taliun," and ended up shot to death in a Chicago hotel room. In fact, these desertions by women are part of the general abandonment of the town. "I think," Colly reflects at one point, "of all the people I know who left these hills." This is a familiar theme of course; it is the theme of rural life in this century.
But Pancake sees it as part of a still larger picture. Colly's personal losses are part of the town's losses, which are part of a series of losses stringing back in time, and forward, infinitely. Colly's hobby is collecting fossils, which he thinks of as his "stone animals," and "little stones that lived so long ago." At the opening of the story, Colly looks at Company Hill, "all sort of worn down and round. A long time ago it was real craggy and stood like an island in the Teays River. It took over a million years to make that smooth little hill, and I've looked all over it for trilobites. I think how it has always been there and always will be, at least for as long as it matters." Even the Teays River is a trickle of what it once had been. And now the ponds where Colly gaffs turtles—"turkles," as he calls them—are to be filled for subdivisions. "Under all those houses, my turkles will turn to stone," just as the trilobites did so many eons before.
This is a long view, and could be absurdly so, except that it works so beautifully with everything else in the story: the setting, the archaic diction and vocabulary of the characters (an archaic simplicity that could cough up a surname like Pancake, in fact) and, not least, since character is really what fiction is about, that of Colly himself. (pp. 3, 6)
In his afterword [see excerpt above], John Casey remarks how Breece himself was in some ways old, although he was chronologically not quite 27 when he died. "I began to feel that not only did he learn things fast, absorb them fast, but he aged them fast." A story like "Trilobites," which contains so much knowledge, which explores its subject so well on so many levels, must have aged him as a writer must have made him feel that he had used up all he knew.
Two other stories come close to achieving the complex confluence of character, setting, language, theme, history, myth, of "Trilobites": "Hollow" and "In the Dry." Three others, "The Scrapper," "The Honored Dead," and "The Salvation of Me," are good, but not remarkable. Half, then, truly deserve to be collected. Yet even the lesser stories have an interest, a polish, and an individuality. A false and rather sophomoric story like "A Room Forever" has what Casey calls Pancake's "authentic sense, even memory, of ways of being he couldn't have known firsthand"….
It is impossible not to admire, indeed to envy, the writer at work in these stories. And yet there are certain things that recur in them that are repulsive. Women, almost without exception, are … whores, or if not that, suspected of being whores, or unfaithful in ways that men are not. There is a glorying in guns and killing, in sudden and pointless violence. It is hard to know whether these attitudes are an unavoidable aspect of his subject or part of his sensibility. Finally, in a writer as fine as Breece was, subject and sensibility are probably the same. (p. 6)
Robert Wilson, "Tales from the West Virginia Hills and Hollows," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1983, The Washington Post), March 6, 1983, pp. 3, 6.
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[The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake displays fiction] that offers the deep pleasure of art created out of the need to transform suffering…. These twelve stories are all we will ever have from [Pancake], but they may well be read for generations to come.
While [Bobbie Ann Mason's characters in her initial volume, Shiloh and Other Stories,] 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 truckdrivers or gas-station attendants, Pancake creates stories that are as carefully (and wittily) observed as any of Mason's. For him, however, the social and family dramas, the inescapable situations, are not simply performances. As in classic tragedy, his heroes' failures affirm the absolute value of what they've lost.
Colly, the hero of "Trilobites," has collected rocks and fossils since childhood. He has lived all his life on his father's farm, but he has no talent for farming ("Couldn't grow pole beans in a pile of horseshit," he says to himself). He is connected to the land by his passion for its geological secrets. Colly's father is dead, his mother is about to sell the farm to a developer and move to Ohio, and his emotional grounding has been shaken loose. (pp. 345-46)
Pancake's language brings Colly alive; we join him in his loneliness….
Colly's isolation does not collapse into a meaningless alienation. His decision at the end of the story to become a railroad bum is a decision, not a sad fade-out. Hedged all around by circumstance, Colly is not a victim of circumstance.
This ability to choose Pancake gives to all his characters, even in the bleakest story, "First Day of Winter," in which the protagonist, Hollis, accepts a kind of living death as the caretaker of his aging parents. Although Hollis's despair is absolute, he is also the man who provides the squirrel meat for Thanksgiving dinner, and his fate does not appear to be out of his own hands. Like tragic heroes, when Pancake's characters can't choose anything else, they choose their own losses….
Pancake's stories take place in a country where men kill animals and fight each other. They expect to have blood on their hands, and they expect women to bear children. It is a measure of his seriousness that Pancake's own consciousness is not befuddled by his material. Only "The Mark" has a woman as the main character, but she is solidly at the center. In the end, the weight of Reva's sorrow makes the same claim on our hearts as Colly's, and she too chooses her loss, burning down the lockhouse, the private life of her childhood.
The stories are all sad, yet they are not heavy or gloomy because we are always aware of the pleasure Pancake takes in their details. The real art of these stories is in the counterpoint between Pancake's intimacy with his characters and the almost playful detachment of his description. Reva watches a man at the fair who swallows snakes for a living. Colly lets a little turtle blood spray on the developer's pants. (p. 346)
Pancake's stories are undecorated, but they have plenty of room to notice the way a piece of land dries out in the summer and the way a field looks after frost; how a crippled man sits in a wheelchair with his hands bunched in his lap; or how it feels to scrape your knuckles under the hood of a car in the cold. They are attentive to the way headlights in the dark show up the highway steam, "making the road give birth to little ghosts beneath his feet." Because we know we can trust Pancake on these and hundreds of other details, we trust him not to abandon us in the dark forest of his characters' inner lives. (pp. 346-47)
Patricia Vigderman, "K-Marts and Failing Farms," in The Nation (copyright 1983 The Nation magazine, The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 236, No. 11, March 19, 1983, pp. 345-47.∗
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At his best Pancake is an artful narrator, often indirect in his approach, slow to reveal the situation underlying the speech and behavior of his characters. Several of the pieces [in The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake] require two or more readings before their implications can be fully grasped. But what is apparent on every page is Pancake's ability to recreate, in sharp and memorable detail, the West Virginia landscape of ancient, weathered hills and hollows, of half-abandoned mining villages, rusting trailers, tank cars, sad cafés, and impoverished farms—a landscape that serves as a metaphorical equivalent for the lives of his characters, most of them trapped, crippled, or obsolete. The appeal to the senses is constant.
In the first (and, I think, most successful) of the stories, "Trilobites," the narrator is a struggling young farmer, Colly, with a strong love of the land which is frustrated by his inability to wrest a living from it….
Colly's situation and his response to it are typical of most of the young (or not so young) males in Pancake's stories—Buddy, Bo, Skeevy, Hollis, Ottie…. Suffering inarticulately, speaking stoically bitten-off phrases, they mourn dead fathers or brothers, endure the whining of feckless mothers, and expect the worst of their girlfriends or wives, who are restless, looking for a good time, likely at any moment to turn whore. The coal smoke of depression that hangs over the stories is rent from time to time by violence, much of it directed at animals. The details are often revolting. Colly, who craves "turkle" meat, gaffs a snapping turtle in a creek, decapitates it, hears its decapitated movements in a sack, fries its meat in a skillet. In the story called "Hollow," Buddy, who is a coal miner, tires of the beans-and-turnips slop served up by his faithless Sal and kills a pregnant doe, whose butchering is minutely described. In "Fox Hunters," a sixteen-year-old misfit named Bo goes out with a group of older men who get drunk and tell dirty stories by the fire while their hounds pursue a fox through the night; at the last moment Bo, so drunk that he can hardly stand, tries to shoot the hound that is closing in on the exhausted fox but misses, loses his father's pistol, and staggers to the edge of the clearing to vomit.
The range of feeling within the stories is extremely narrow. Humor is wholly absent. Even a trace of it would have redeemed, one feels, the absurdity of the piece called "Time and Again," which is obliquely narrated by an old hillbilly who, it turns out, is inclined to murder young hitchhikers in order to feed them to his flesh-eating hogs. One need not doubt the accuracy of Pancake's details to recognize that the despair, anger, cynicism about women, and cruelty that he depicts are also projections of a state of mind. However tragically such feelings and attitudes must have figured in the life and early death of the author, they tend in his fiction to take on—in their obsessive reiteration—a quality of late-adolescent Weltschmerz that verges on the maudlin.
Robert Towers, "Violent Places," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1983 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. XXX, No. 5, March 31, 1983, p. 11.∗
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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 Review of Books and Joyce Carol Oates went even further in a front-page rave in The New York Times Book Review [see excerpts above]. She found Pancake to be "a young writer of such extraordinary gifts that one is tempted to compare his debut to Hemingway's…." Pancake's reputation, it should be noted, preceeded him; I (and I assume others) had heard mention of his name—it wasn't, obviously, one I was likely to forget—from several magazine and book editors some time before I ever set eyes on this collection: I was prepared to pay attention. Well, I have read the stories and I, at least, found that they don't quite hold up to the acclaim surrounding them. (p. 36)
Pancake came from the foothills of West Virginia and, in spite of the friends he made and recognition he received, appears to have carried an implacable sense of apartness. This I gathered from the accounts by two former teachers, James Alan McPherson and John Casey, which are contained in the foreword and afterword to the book.
The inclusion of two memoirs in so slim a volume is in itself a bit curious, as though the distanced tone of the writing needed to be warmed up by some friendly recollection. Both men apparently helped Pancake a great deal but their affection for him has a reserved note to it. He seems to have needed more than either McPherson or Casey could give, or not to have known how to ask for what they could have provided: solace, understanding, company—"an instant of basic human understanding," as McPherson describes it. The reader learns that Pancake wrote as he drank—hard—and that he both resented and felt attached to the worn terrain that bred him.
These stories, like Pancake himself, don't invite lavish involvement. They are spare, undoubtedly, but they are also pitiless: try and get too close to them and they will rebuff you. Set in the impoverished valleys and towns of West Virginia, the stories are mounted in hard, bleak details. Everything—money, jobs, sex—is in short supply, and nothing yields to the human element, least of all other people. The characteristic point of view is that of a muffledly sensitive male in his twenties who works at a grimy occupation—coalminer, truckdriver, or gas station attendant—and plays at even grimier activities—cockfighting, boxing, foxhunting. These young men, and this is even truer of the women they turn to for love but end up "rutting," have had feelings once; now all they have is the absence of response. The prevailing tone is as impassive as the landscape: "This is how it is," Pancake seems to be saying, "ain't nothin' goin' to change nohow."
The aspect of Pancake's work most singled out for praise has been his handling of detail. And his eye is indeed very clear, although I have doubts about how much it takes in. In the best stories—"Trilobites," "Hollow," "Fox Hunters," "In the Dry"—the details are sharp as stones and are used to puncture any airy sentiments the narrator might have once had. Colly, the dirt-farmer in the first and most accomplished story, "Trilobites," has been the sort of whimsical fellow who could write in his girlfriend, Ginny's, yearbook: "'We will live on mangoes and love.'" Now, however, he feels "like a real fool" for what he wrote and the futility of such dreams is driven home to the reader by the inertness of the physical surroundings and the fearful decision of Colly's widowed mother to sell the family farm. (pp. 36-7)
[Frequently], Pancake's stories begin and end in an atmosphere of quiet fury—more eruptive than depression, and therefore disquieting. The violence is diverted—a woman gets cuffed, a doe is shot and gutted—but it still threatens precisely because it isn't exhausted. This is particularly apparent in one of the more rounded-out stories, "In the Dry," featuring a young scab trucker named Ottie who returns to the droughty valley where he has been raised by a foster family. No one seems pleased to see him after the passage of years: "Law, it's you," his foster mother greets him. Bus, a cousin who has been crippled in a car accident that Ottie was involved in, recognizes him but refuses to do more than blink in acknowledgement. After a furious outburst from his foster father, Old Gerlock, Ottie leaves, stopping first to take care of Old Gerlock's daughter's mute sexual need, expressed by her "gray, waiting" presence. The story is powerful; it suggests a silent screaming, like the "awful noise" the gears of Ottie's truck make as he pulls out into the night.
But too often the underlying anger and depression of Pancake's voice is tiring, even boring. I found myself getting weary of knowing what his characters don't feel; I longed to know what they do feel. His relentlessly laconic style begins to seem imposed; even West Virginia must boast a few chatty types as well as these people who drop a few words in between their pauses. The stories revolving around characters other than standins for Pancake's own don't ring true to me. "A Room Forever" is about a boathand on shore leave who picks up a pubescent prostitute and makes a stab at reaching out to her, which she scornfully rejects. Immediately after this the girl goes out and slits her wrists, which causes the unflappable narrator to muse "how shit always sinks." The schematic misery of this story made me think of those black-hued contributions that appear in high school literary magazines; the insistent pointlessness of its tone ends up evoking no greater interest in the reader than a desire for the story to end.
The depressive in literature has acquired, these past decades, an unimpeachable stature; we respond to it with automatic seriousness. This fact, I imagine, has something to do with the attention conferred upon these stories, whose author looks downward on the book jacket, retreating into the shadow of the lens. I wonder also if Pancake's reviewers, tired of reading fiction about jaded urban couples, weren't drawn in by the unfamiliar form that bleakness takes in the hills of West Virginia. There is an exotic spirit to his stories, almost in spite of themselves, filled as they are with scrappy facts—eating turtle meat, working the face of a coal mine. Still the harsh mystique of this rural Southern life leaves an irrevocably bitter impression. I doubt that many readers will be moved to go back to any of these stories a second time. The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake is a distinctly minor collection with glints of a larger gift. To elevate these modest offerings by hailing them as more than they are is to honor neither the reality of the writer's talent nor of his pain. (p. 37)
Daphne Merkin, "The Aura of Suicide," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1983 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 188, No. 18, May 9, 1983, pp. 36-7.
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From all accounts, Breece Pancake was severely locked into both categories of the dreamer and the resigned. Much of the tension in [The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake] seems to come from his desire to leave his home territory and his surrender to the overwhelming pull of the land, the people, and the expectations that are passed down through families. This tension imbued him with an unflinching and painful awareness of where he came from that, I think, makes these stories exceptional.
Many of the inhabitants in this collection have a bond with the land that goes much deeper than the topsoil that provides them with their livings. They consider the very fossils in the rocks a part of their own history. Every worn wooden shack in every hollow seems to have a glass case full of arrowheads, fossils and rocks. In "Trilobites," a young man troubled by the death of his father and the imminent sale of the hill farm he grew up on takes comfort in the local geography….
By the end of this story, the farm has been sold, the mother challenged, the girlfriend alienated, and the main character, Colly, can feel his "fear moving away in rings through time for a million years."
Many of these stories ("In the Dry," "The First Day of Winter," "The Mark," "The Honored Dead," "The Salvation of Me") offer characters coping with the results of remaining or not remaining in the poor hilltowns and hollows where they were born and raised.
In "Hollow," one of the best and bleakest stories depicting a cold day in the life of a young strip miner, there is no question of getting away. Though this is a brutal, sad, and cold story, it is also one of the most unflinching and richest evocations of a world that I've read lately. What lifts Breece Pancake's best stories into solid, moving literary experiences is his attention to atmosphere. Detailed descriptions of the mechanics of daily living—from gaffing and butchering a turtle to working a strip mine—work hand in hand with an intense awareness of nature and weather and an exceptional ear for dialogue and dialects to produce a powerful sense of place that is rare in contemporary fiction.
Breece Pancake is not one of those writers one comes to for explications of human feeling and motivation. For the most part people are driven and imprisoned by pasts they don't understand. Human hurt is expressed in cryptic phrases, enigmatic turns of dialogue, suggestion and atmosphere. There are plenty of skeletons to stock family closets, and often a subtle spoken word can do as much damage as a bullet.
For those who like their literature with equal parts empathy for women as for men, these stories may be a challenge at times. Most of the time is spent in the world of young men, of hunting, cars, farm machinery, best friends, animal blood, violence and a generally adolescent attitude toward the opposite sex. Women are mostly confined to the roles of "mother" and "whore" or some compromise between the two. One gets the feeling, however, that Breece Pancake struggled valiantly with these choices. Again and again, his main characters try to squeeze as much humanity as they can out of the choices that are offered them. Again and again, they are defeated—albeit sometimes willingly—by a culture and tradition as formidable and inescapable as the hills and hollows that hold them….
Though Breece's suicide casts a shadow over these stories, I think it is paying him the ultimate compliment to say that it really doesn't matter here. Like fossils formed over millions of years by enormous pressures in a single place, these stories have the polished, purged, hardwon qualities that will insure that they last far longer than the flesh that once inhabited them.
Bolton Davis, in a review of "The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake," in San Francisco Review of Books (copyright © by the San Francisco Review of Books 1983), May-June, 1983, p. 19.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 320
In The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake, we can sense the sort of geographical despair that could drive a person to self-extinction: human life is closed in upon, almost crushed between ragged slopes of landscape, almost lost in the hollows between the rises. There is so much violence in this setting, so much bleak, gun-metal despair. It thrives in the mines, in such stories as "Hollow"; in the off-time thrills of cockfighting (and man-fighting) in "The Scrapper"; and in the simply dark and perverse private lives of the people, as in "The Mark."
However, the best stories are those in which men and women strive for a momentary redemption, for an ascension out of the emotional morass that tugs at their heels. In "Trilobites," a young man stares out across a valley at the glint from a copper roof; the roof, like the woman who lives beneath it, stands as a symbol, a hope almost as distant as the expanse of bottomland that stretches from eye to hillside. He seeks the woman's love—or at least her recognition of that love—but what he achieves is the mere function of that love, the sexual possession. Authentic love is an emotion that has been fossilized, pressed, and preserved by the vast weights of time and earth and isolation; it exists only as artifact….
What stands out in all of these stories is the sheer pain of this life. Characters walk about with their hearts torn out, bare gaping wounds like the yawning mouths of mines. So much emotion is expended, and expended wastefully, as bodies heave down on bodies, forcing their pain upon others, that we can almost understand the inward intensity of feeling Pancake himself understood and, tragically, never seemed to outlive.
Gregory Morris, "Bare Gaping Wounds," in Prairie Schooner (reprinted from Prairie Schooner by permission of University of Nebraska Press; © 1983 by University of Nebraska Press), Vol. 57, No. 3, Fall, 1983, p. 89.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 529
Pancake was totally obsessed with bringing alive the voices of his impoverished West Virginia. Born in the "hollers" of Appalachia, he acquired the crust of a wisecracking hillbilly but underneath he was collapsible: the torment of his life comes up like iron spikes through the twelve stories that his former University of Virginia teachers, James Alan McPherson and John Casey, have collected in this slim volume [The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake]. The reader feels somehow impaled on his prose: frequently a single paragraph (which he rewrote dozens of times) will stand as a kind of parable, spoken in the rough and bewildered voice of the common man. His stories, like his life, are shrouded in mystery. His teachers talk of him as though he shadowed them still; his presence was unerasable in their lives and yet they knew so little about him that neither knows why he died. So do his characters prick our fascination with their ambiguity. (p. 92)
The people Pancake writes about live mean lives in a world oddly colorful and dreary at the same time. There are waitresses with "… hair the same red as a rusty Brillo pad" and there are bloody cockfights, fox hunts, stock shows; we are taken to the tense depths of a coal mine and up to the top of a mountain to stalk deer, but the men that indulge in these rough-and-tumble dramas are sad and introspective, as though they belonged nestled elsewhere, namely inside the author's soul. They are overwhelmed by images of their guilt, about causing accidents or evading the Vietnam war, or by their dreams which tell them they must shake off the past and find a way out of the dead-end poverty of the hills, an exit that the reader somehow knows will never take place. Casey says that Pancake never knew how good he was and this is reflected in the peculiar set of his characters' minds. Sensitive yet afraid, they drift about, tugboat workers, gas pump men, miners, battered like leaves in the wind, always lingering or loitering, swearing to better days while noiselessly accepting their own doom. The short sinewy sentences are pulled so taut they sing with the tension, and the "I" builds slowly in power as it moves to slaughter a deer or make love to a child prostitute or just to bring a dusty hand down on the sheen of a woman's cheek.
Pancake's hillbillies have a preoccupation with looking back and, as the stories progress, memory becomes so urgent that the past invades the present as strongly as events of the moment. (pp. 92-3)
Pancake's fiction is full of violence, particularly the butchering of animals for game and for food, and his life, also ended violently, is a tragic waste for American literature. It is a fitting epitaph that shortly before his suicide, he had a dream that he was in a world full of quail and rabbit and deer which, when you shot them, popped back to life and ran off again. (p. 93)
Lucinda Franks, in a review of "The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake," in The Ontario Review (copyright © 1984 by The Ontario Review), No. 19, Fall-Winter, 1983–84, pp. 92-3.