The myth and legend of a dead writer rolls on…
By Don Stradley
Breece D’J Pancake was gone before we knew him -- just as the 26-year-old had attracted the sort of success that came to only a handful of short fiction writers in the 1980s, he took a shotgun and blew his brains out -- which gave his work an aura of darkness and misery. It’s with some regret that I’ve never been entirely engaged by his stories. When I first encountered his writing, recommended by a friend from Amherst who was convinced he’d discovered the next big thing (probably not long after the poor guy’s bloody hair had been scraped from the walls of his living room), I was still feeling my way through Kerouac and Nathanael West. I had pounds of Williams, Capote, O’Connor, O’Neill, and McCullers to eat through. True, I appreciated Pancake, admired his craftsmanship, but was perfectly fine without his bitter characters and their deep-fried ennui.
The Pancake stories (reissued recently in both Vintage paperback and Kindle editions as Trilobites and Other Stories) resonated with his admirers, I think, because Pancake came from a tradition of Southern writers, and slathered his fiction with such bleakness that it demanded to be noticed, like the one party guest who sits in a corner scowling. We learn from James Alan McPherson’s forward that Pancake was “a lonely and melancholy man,” and then, in a snippet from a letter written by Pancake’s mother, we learn that “God called him home because he saw too much dishonesty and evil in this world and he couldn’t cope.” His style was good ol’ boy smarm as a mask for depression, where coal miners mourned their busted love lives, and able-bodied young men accepted a future of poverty. Ex-girlfriends lurk like phantoms at the borders of the stories, dropping into town unexpectedly, or waiting tables at the town’s only diner. You want coffee and a sammich? You’ll be served by an ex-girlfriend whose ass looks better than you remember. Pancake’s men exist solely to endure their surroundings and cough up coal dust.
McPherson, who taught at the University of Virginia where Pancake toiled as a student teacher, turns his forward into a hagiographic homage, complete with references to James Dean and Phil Ochs and Faulkner, and an ode to the “winding mountain roads” of Pancake’s home state of West Virginia, where the hollows served as graveyards for “abandoned cars and stoves and refrigerators.” McPherson depicted Pancake as a sort of mercurial, holy idiot: “He would get into fights in lower-class bars on the outskirts of Charlottesville,” McPherson wrote of his mysterious old pal, “then return to the city to show off his scars.” While McPherson’s intro focused on Breece the sensitive battler, author John Casey, also a teacher at U of V, supplied an equally melodramatic afterward. Shortly after Pancake’s suicide, Casey claimed he was suddenly overcome by the taste of metal in his mouth, the unmistakable flavor of a gun barrel, as if Pancake were sharing his final moments from beyond eternity. Who needs a press release when the friends you leave behind are such brazen idol makers?
Could this brawling, boozing, haunter from the hollows tell a story? The dozen pieces he wrote certainly fall short of The New York Times review where Joyce Carol Oates raved about Pancake and claimed it was “tempting to compare his debut to Hemingway’s.” It must’ve been the shotgun. Still, Pancake’s fiction has been translated into German and Spanish, and collected and recycled into various anthologies, including one called Grit Lit: A Rough South Reader. At least part of the reason for Pancake’s enduring legend is the very American fear that writing fiction is a somehow unmanly pursuit. There’s nothing better than a two-fisted, suicidal author to make those effete types chained to the radiators of academia feel better about themselves.
The stories aren’t bad -- there are plenty of volatile characters trying to alleviate their anxiety with alcohol, violence, and aimless sex -- and Pancake liked to waylay readers with sudden displays of nastiness, like a detailed description of an animal being gutted, or how, in a story called ‘The Scrapper’, a street fight comes to a halt so a man can spit out the tip of his tongue. But for all of Pancake’s rawness, his writing feels airless, as if each paragraph had been squeezed of life and tailored to the specifications of some angry anal retentive. This meticulous attention to form gives each story a sort of bare-knuckled tautness, but there’s also a cookie cutter feel to Pancake’s writing; read a few of his tales, and you can just about predict when a character will spit or shit. They all seem to end with a guy sitting in his truck, staring into the rain, or standing next to the steaming entrails of a freshly killed possum, wondering when daylight will come. Pancake’s stories rarely made it to morning.
I used to loan out my copy of Pancake’s book. My thinking was that someone else might like it more than I did. In fact, one friend was so fond of Pancake’s most lighthearted tale, ‘The Salvation of Me,’ that she contacted Pancake’s mother about the possibility of using it as the basis of a short film. The mother wrote back, saying that all of her son’s work had been grabbed up by Hollywood people for potential movie treatments. As far as I know, nothing of Pancake’s ever made it to the screen. Just as well. Pancake’s stories aren’t especially cinematic. Having now read them a second time, they’re the prose equivalent of those photographic portraits from the 1800s where no one smiled.