I love coming upon buried treasure: little known writers that are astonishingly good yet relatively little known. Denton Welch was one such discovery. Breece Pancake is my most recent.
Based solely on a friend’s recommendation, I ordered The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake (yes, the apostrophe is deliberate) online without knowing anything about the author or his work and was more than just pleasantly surprised; I was astonished by these twelve stories.
Written in the 1970s, Pancake’s fictional landscape is mostly set in the poor, rural West Virginia where he grew up, and the male protagonists of his stories reflect the economic realities of that world. They are coal miners, auto mechanics, truck drivers, tugboat operators, snowplough drivers, bootleggers, scrappers, even murderers. Except for several of the young female characters who’ve managed to leave and go to college—girls who are often “outside the league” of his male protagonists—his characters are often on the brink of some kind of change, yet very much trapped in the hopelessness of their situations.
In the opening story “Trilobites,” for example, Colly’s father has died and his mother, no longer able to manage the farm, is about to sell it to a property developer and move to Akron, Ohio. Colly doesn’t want to go; he’s strongly attached to the land, often scouring it for trilobite fossils. But it’s a landscape he’s powerless to prevent from changing. His high school sweetheart, Ginny, has also moved away (her family has uprooted itself to Florida) but has returned for a visit. Not surprisingly, she looks different now; she’s got new clothes, wears too much jewellery, while Colly, she says, hasn’t changed a bit. They decide to “go parking” for old times’ sake at an old depot, a mostly boarded up building along the railroad tracks. Once inside the abandoned building, their lovemaking turns cold and pleasureless, verging on the violent as Pancake describes Ginny’s head “rolling in splinters of paint and glass.” Ginny immediately goes home afterwards, leaving Colly on the platform of the abandoned depot to contemplate his dead father, the prehistoric river that once flowed through these parts, and an uncertain future.
In “The Mark,” one of the strangest (and strongest) stories in the collection, we learn that Reva is pregnant (with a “little rabbit” inside her) and that her brother Clinton has shipped out to work on the same river that has taken the lives of their parents when the bridge collapsed and swallowed their car. Tyler, Reva’s husband, is ecstatic at the possibility that he and Reva will have a child (a doctor still needs to confirm), yet is puzzled by how disconsolate she is at her brother’s departure, unaware that she actually sexually desires her brother. Reva, Tyler, Tyler’s brother Bill and his wife Carlene head off to the county fair. While the two women wander the midway—Carlene excited about the possibility of a child, Reva glum—they pass a tent where rumour has it a stripper is able to smoke “a cigar with her you-know-what,” reminding Reva of the time when she had shown Clinton that trick in the boathouse where they used to “trade dark secrets.” At one point, they come upon a cage of spider monkeys, the male and female fornicating while the other male watches, stroking himself and waiting his turn. Reva is fascinated, but Carlene is repelled and tells the story of a pregnant woman who’d seen the same thing and whose baby was “marked” by the sight and came out “lookin’ just like a monkey.” Not long afterwards, Reva feels the “menstrual slip,” and the “little rabbit” everyone believes to be inside her, is now the child that never was.
Perhaps one of the most memorable stories in the collection is “In the Dry.” After spending many years away driving a rig, Ottie returns to visit the foster family that raised him. Sheila, the daughter, is delighted to see him again, but Old Man Gerlock is less so. He wants to know what happened the night Ottie and Bus (Sheila’s cousin) got into a car accident that left Ottie unharmed and Bus in a wheelchair and barely able to utter anything more than “cig’ret.” It’s a mysterious story, dark and secretive, paradoxically satisfying because of its ambiguity and its haunting quality long after having read it.
One of the most seductive aspects of reading Pancake is his language, of course. Although his prose style is extremely clipped and spare, it is by no means a limpid read. His sentences are littered with the regionalisms of his native West Virginia and the idiom of his protagonists’ jobs, forcing the reader to slow down and pay attention. In the following passage from “Fox Hunters,” for example, notice how Pancake can turn otherwise uninteresting set of actions into something beautiful:
It was nearly nine when Enoch came in. Bo lay on a crawler under Beck Fuller’s Pontiac, draining excretions from the crankcase and twisting a filthy rag around the grease tits to remove warts of clay.
“Be a damn sight easier on the lift,” Enoch grumbled. Bo avoided the hole. He was forbidden to use the lift.
He scooted the crawler into the light, shoved his welder’s beanie back, and studied Enoch.
And then there’s the kind of speech that’s typical of both the South and redolent of Flannery O’Connor. Also from “Fox Hunters” are the following lines of dialogue:
“I’s talkin’ to Larry up to the Union Hall,” said Bill, experimenting shamefully, “an’ he says yer faverite song’s that damn ‘Rockin’ Riber.’” […] “Son’ like that’s ber a riber town. We ain’t got no riber in Parkins.”
And then there are the passages that are simply notable for their poetic beauty. From “In the Dry”:
The back porch catches a breeze, and he lets it slip between the buttons of his shirt, sits in the swing, and listens to the first dead water-maple leaves chattering across the hard-packed path. His hand shuffles through old photographs, some cardboard, some tin. They show the brown and gray faces of Gerlock boys; men he almost knew, old men, all dead. The women are dressed in long skirts; only half-pretty women too soon gone old. He wonders about the colors of their world: flour-sack print dresses, dark wool suits; a bluer sky by day, a blacker night. Now days and nights blur, and the old clothes are barn rags, brown with tractor grease. He puts the box on the floor, watches the Gerlock families.
Very often one hears how much a short story writer is able to pack into a small number of pages, but with Pancake the striking thing is how much he leaves out, how much is hinted at and implied. By drawing a parallel between “the little rabbit” and the caged monkeys in “The Mark,” for example, the reader is suddenly struck with the knowledge that the child Reva might be pregnant with is not a normal human child, but something unnatural, even monstrous, and that the likely father is not Tyler but her brother Clinton. “In the Dry” is also a story that raises more questions than it answers. Although we come to understand there’s a semi-incestuous love triangle involving Bus, Sheila, and Ottie, it’s still never entirely clear what happened the night of the accident—and maybe that’s the point—which is made even cloudier by numerous other passages throughout the story—references to a beagle, mouse bones found in a tree trunk—that are both hauntingly beautiful but equivocal in meaning. Like Alice Munro’s “Open Secrets”—another story in which meaning is partially occluded from the reader—“In the Dry” is steeped in its own secrets. And in the collection’s last story, “The First Day of Winter,” there is the slightest hint that Hollis, when he faces the hopelessness of his situation and the reality that he is unable to look after both his aging parents and the farm, that he might take his own life.
There’s also a lot more going on in these twelve stories than my simple summaries may suggest. These stories are deeply layered with conflict, both in terms of character and their wants and histories, as well as their actions. As a result, violence and death is prevalent throughout the book. In “Hollow,” for example, we witness Buddy shoot and kill a doe, slit open its belly and an unborn, still squirming fawn falls at his feet. Buddy kicks it aside as he continues to slice into the doe to remove and bite into the raw liver. In “The Scrapper,” we witness Skeevy get pummelled and “the fine bones of his jaw shatter,” a fight he promised his mother he would never get into, yet the lure of $200 is too big to ignore. In the end, Skeevy tastes blood and spits out the bitten-off tip of his tongue, and we know it’s not going to end well for Skeevy. And in “A Room Forever,” we uncomfortably watch the first-person narrator have sex with an under-age prostitute. “I know what I got,” he says, “a kid playing whore […] I force myself on her like the rest. I know I am hurting her, but she will never get any breaks.”
Pancake is sometimes described as a “writer’s writer”—an expression I personally dislike and find a little meaningless; yet I can also see too how completely apt that appellation may be, for not only do these twelve stories remind one of Hemingway, James Joyce's Dubliners, Flannery O’Connor and the later writing of Raymond Carver, but Pancake’s work demands to be read and reread, stories that continue to open up and shift in meaning with each reading—stories that instruct. Like all the best stories, Pancake’s fiction continues to leave the reader with something to ruminate on, even long after closing the book. What’s astonishing, too, is that these stories were written by a young man in his twenties and the depth of feeling, wisdom and maturity that such a young writer was able to summon. Unfortunately, we will never know the full extent of what Pancake was capable of. Although several of these stories were originally published in The Atlantic and Pancake was only just embarking on what looked to be a brilliant literary career, he ended his life in 1979 by a self-inflicted gunshot wound at the age of twenty-six. The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake was published posthumously and is his only book.