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.