|Breece D'J Pancake|
Wednesday, June 27, 2018
A BRILLIANT SHORT-LIVED WRITER WITH AN UNLIKELY NAME: PANCAKE
On April 8th, Palm Sunday, 1979, Breece Pancake went to Mass. In recent days, he had been giving a lot of his stuff away. Things he figured he wouldn’t be using anymore.
These things that he gifted to others included some of his guns. Like a lot of boys who grew up in the Appalachian hills and hollows of West Virginia, Breece had long been a hunter, though often a repentant one, with a real sensitivity for nature and a mind well attuned to the existence and lives of critters of all sorts that inhabited the hills of his homeland along with him.
But he didn’t give all of his guns away. One in particular, a Savage over-and-under shotgun, he kept with something like aforethought and intention.
A few hours after that Palm Sunday Mass, Breece Pancake used that Savage shotgun to blow his own brains out. He was twenty-six and almost famous. But not quite. And so ended the life of a brilliant writer, who surely had compelling stories left to tell, but who decided—selfishly in the estimation of those of us familiar with his work, I’m sure—to leave behind only a tiny legacy of extremely well-crafted literature.
For the brief “quarter of an hour” that Breece was almost famous, he signed his work as Breece D’J Pancake. The pen name was the result of one of his first great successes, the 1977 publication in The Atlantic Monthly of a story of his entitled Trilobites. When the magazine printed the story up, there was a typo in his name, in which he included his middle two initials (for Dexter John). Breece liked how that out-of-place apostrophe looked and decided not to correct it. So, as if Pancake were not a unique enough name, the D’J in his nom de plume stuck—for the two years that he would live afterward and on his published works up to the present day.
Despite the deceptively back-woodsy settings and plots, and the simple style of Breece’s stories, he was not a self-made writer. Five years before his untimely death, he had received a BA in English from Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia. As a graduate student, he later attended the University of Virginia’s creative writing program, headed up by National Book Award-winning novelist John Casey and by Pulitzer Prize-winning short story writer and essayist James Alan McPherson. With that education under his belt, he would later teach English at Virginia’s Fort Union and Staunton military academies.
Breece D’J Pancake was a short story writer. We’ll never know if he might ever have written a longer work. At the time of his death, his entire body of work comprised a dozen extraordinarily well-crafted short stories—six published in The Atlantic Monthly and another half-dozen only published posthumously. They are all anthologized in a thin volume entitled, simply, The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake (© Helen Pancake, 1983, pub. Brown-Little, available on Amazon).
In Trilobites, probably Pancake’s best known short story, the main character is stuck on a failing family farm that he doesn’t know how to leave or where else to go. The surrounding hills contain trilobite fossils (an extinct prehistoric marine organism from the time when the oceans covered vast expanses of the earth). The unfolding story of the protagonist, who feels stuck in the middle like the fossils he sought as a boy, takes us on a guided tour of the flood of emotions that assails him when his mother decides to sell the farm and move to Ohio. Why should he want to stay, he wonders, when he has no knack for farming and is merely overseeing the spread’s demise? But still... I look at Company Hill again, all sort of worn down and round, the narrator says. 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.
Pancake delves into the despair and darkness of the poor mining and farming communities of his native West Virginia. It’s a rugged world of truck drivers, mechanics, waitresses, miners, river rats and hookers. But there is always an underlying feeling of discontent and longing mixed with an itch to move on and a taste for violence. There’s a tacit darkness and foreboding also, never as well expressed as in Time and Again, in which what appears at first glance to be the story of a lonely man whose hogs are his only company, ends up making us wonder if a stranger who hitches a ride on a snowplow hasn’t just had an unwitting brush with a serial killer.
But then too, there is a stunning sensitivity that challenges the brutality of the society he describes, like when he opens a scene by telling it from the viewpoint of a possum and her young, steering clear of the danger posed by all men, or when he makes a fox the real protagonist of a story in which hunters play the antagonists.
Breece has been compared to Hemingway, and indeed he admitted Hemingway’s influence on him. But this is Hemingway without the ego. This is a world inhabited by anti-heroes and confused characters, people for whom life is a baffling conundrum, as it very likely was for the author himself. The simple complexity of his writing is stunning and tears at your imagination, but also at your deepest fears, your deepest feelings and at your heart.
Other powerful writers who admit to being influenced by the incredible craft demonstrated in such a paltry body of work include such successful fiction writers as Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk and the acclaimed author of House of Sand and Fog, Andre Dubus III.
Bestselling novelist Kurt Vonnegut once wrote the following in a letter sent to Breece’s former professor, John Casey, after the young writer took his own life: “I give you my word of honor that he is merely the best writer, the most sincere writer I've ever read. What I suspect is that it hurt too much, was no fun at all to be that good. You and I will never know.”
None of us will.