I first heard of Breece D’J Pancake in a small pizzeria an hour west of Chicago. I had not been tending the bar that summer night, but Rae was, and when I came in to pick up a pizza she said to the lone man at the counter, writing, he does writing, and she called to me from behind the bar, saying, Honey, honey, O, honey, you need to talk to this man, he is a writer, too.
I do not recall the stranger’s features. I only remember that he was sitting over a drink with a slight hunch, and he spoke about writing with the modest plainspokenness that masculine journalists who call themselves craftsmen have, and he was overjoyed to see me, at last, someone in the suburbs with whom he could discuss literature. He may have been in his upper 20s, or early 30s, while I was just 20. He had lived somewhere and known writers there. They had taught him to write seriously and they discussed writers and writing over drinks. We exchanged the names of our idols.
Once I stopped naming writers (my pizza was getting cold; Nicole Jones was serving that night and I wanted to hear about her life), the man said, “Have you read Breece Pancake?”
What a name, I thought.
“No,” I said, “I have not read Breece Pancake.”
“You need to read Breece Pancake,” he said, “I did not know Breece Pancake, and every writer I knew told me I needed to know Breece Pancake. Breece Pancake is the greatest writer of the past century. You need to read Breece Pancake.”
Well, I have now read Breece Pancake. In October I had skimmed through some of my earliest stories, which reminded me of Hemingway, which reminded me of the man’s low plainspoken voice and that humorous name, Breece Pancake. And I immediately preordered The Collected Breece D’J Pancake: Stories, Fragments, Letters, which Library of America published later that month. And I have written to report that Breece Pancake is good — yes, quite good, as good as the believers say. In an uncanny and traumatic year, he has returned in print, reshaped himself in a new collection, bringing with him old questions, never dead, about memory, trauma, legacy, and forgotten people and times.
Many people have written about Breece D’J Pancake, and they always address his popularity, so minuscule relative to the quality of his prose, which throbs with ambiguity, complexity, and sorrow as deep as the sedimentary rock on which he lived and died in West Virginia. He was born in 1952 and grew up in Milton, a small town. In his 20s he taught at military colleges while he desperately worked to become a good writer, and he went on to attend the University of Virginia’s creative writing program. There he gained a distaste for academics, peers in his department, and Virginians, all of whom regarded him as an outsider, merely a West Virginian, an inferior person from an unwealthy and unhonorable family.
Each essay about Pancake engages with the rest of the life story, the sudden reality, and mystery of Pancake’s death, and the question of what he could have been. In 1970 he killed himself, age 26, a few months before Little, Brown published his first book to acclaim. This act, like a nightmare, like so many suicides, forces everyone to question what came before it. It also turns his biography into a story with an open ending, much like his works. Afterward, Kurt Vonnegut wrote, “What I suspect is that it hurt too much, was no fun at all to be that good.” And, more recently, Samantha Hunt described how “Pancake often more closely resembles a character from fiction rather than one who wrote fiction . . . He’s an invention, his own best character . . . Pancake would be too perfect a creation for fiction if not for the fact that he was real.”
Library of America’s new edition continues this long dialogue of confusion, wonder, appreciation, and mystification at Pancake’s life and work, or life-work. The editors arrange it in three sections: The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake, Fragments, and Selected Letters, a combination that finally places the questions about art and life beside one another. The title itself does this: The Collected Breece D’J Pancake — as if it were not just the collected works of Breece D’J Pancake and not the collected personas of Breece D’J Pancake, but all of it together, the collected enigma and legend itself, what Breece D’J Pancake wrote and what he has come to represent.
In the book, other voices supplement his own, praising his stories, wondering about his life, and showing how great writers inspire great writing about them. James Alan McPherson’s foreword, published with the stories in 1983 and reprinted here, is as stunning as any foreword I have ever read, so evocative and yet elusive in its description of Pancake’s work, in how Pancake’s ghost visited McPherson the night before Pancake died, and in speculation on the strange, sorrowful conditions of Pancake’s death (before he shot himself under a tree on his front lawn, he sat in the home of a nearby family, which upon returning was startled and called the police; McPherson suggests “he was so inarticulate about his own feelings, so frightened that he would be rejected, that he panicked when the couple came home”). He measures Pancake precisely as an idealistic, generous, fiercely original man, struggling for old codes of honor and ethics from “the southern lower-middle-class,” with “no conventional way to express his own needs” to the many “who could not understand who or what he was.” In the afterword, John Casey writes how Pancake’s life and work consisted of “bending . . . violence into gentleness.” And in her introduction, Jayne Anne Phillips describes how his stories have been passed “hand-to-hand . . . and word-of-mouth,” gifting motivated by his “tone-perfect dialogue” that “teaches the reader to hear. His prose has the clarity of a struck bell.”
So by the time, one gets to the stories, much like in this essay, the reader has been introduced or reinvigorated by the legend of Breece D’J Pancake in prose charged with Pancake’s own work and life, like a ghost animating a curtain or a lamppost. This is a great and underappreciated writer, we have been told, who was too good, too private, too much in pain to be understood. “Trilobites,” the first and best of his stories, fulfills the image and confirms his talent. It also sets the theme for the rest of the collection, for the rest of Pancake’s after-life: these are ghost stories, tales of men haunted by regrets, horrors, and the dead. In “Trilobites” a man cannot forget his Pop’s dead face, his body “lain spread-eagled in the thick grass,” and the sliver of a bullet from the war that poisoned him. He had collected rocks with his father in youth, and now he continues his search for trilobites. He also speaks with his girlfriend and dispassionately, violently fucks her. Images of his father continue to return. He never finds a trilobite in the end.
The landscape haunts Pancake’s characters, and it fills out his stories, along with simple moments of disappointment and pain. And the always-arising past. “Time and Again” shows how a man who plows roads always leaves the light on for his son who disappeared. Pancake implies much of the circumstances, but presumably, the man’s despair drove him to pick up hitchhikers and kill them before he fed them to his hogs. The hitchhiker on this night, though, reminds the narrator of his boy, and he returns home, where he tells us, “The kitchen light still burns, and I know the house is empty.” In “Fox Hunters,” the teenage protagonist remembers a girl when he finds out she had just died and when he hears the other hunters disparaging her memory, calling her a whore who they’re happy is dead. “In the Dry” shows how questions about a man’s long-ago car accident force him to remember and endure the pain again, tortured by his memory. In “A Room Forever” a boat worker marks New Year’s Eve with hope, renting “the big room, eight-dollar room” in a hotel. Soon everything returns: he looks on other lonely people, pays for a prostitute, aged 14, attempts to comfort her and speak to her about her life, gets rebuked, and later finds her passed out in a back alley, her wrists slit. And throughout these stories, ghosts abound: in reflections on glass, in steam rising from the highway, in trees by the river (“the ghost-trees of her parents”), and in the earth, in how “the remnants of the night lay strewn about the leaf-floor like a torpid ghost.”
A few years ago John Burnside wrote that “the best of these characters are only half awake, almost sleepwalking through the public parts of the day in order to preserve some stray wisp of spiritedness or ordinary love.” It is true: Pancake peoples his stories with solitary, pensive characters orbiting the world at a different pace than the masses, fixed in moral and ethical dilemmas. They are like the people the protagonist in “A Room Forever” notices at the bar, those who have “come down from their flops because there are no parties for them to go to. They are strangers who play a little pool or pinball, drink a little booze.” And they are his own characters, his own — broken men from West Virginia, crumbling like the mining holes burrowed beneath their feet. Their broken, disturbed gazes prevent them from seeing women as complex people (this collection lacks one moving or fully-developed female character) and from moving beyond their pasts. In Hemingway men fail; in Pancake, they are doomed.
The prose, through its low tone and its changes from past to present tense, contributes to the feeling of melancholy and doom. We read some writers for the symphony of their prose, for the flow and music of paragraphs, of pages. Other writers, like Pancake, read sentence by sentence. There is more of Sherwood Anderson’s images, landscape, style, and mood in these stories, but they also make Hemingway’s influence clear: Pancake writes impression after impression, with each sentence containing a clear image or thought. Hemingway’s elisions may be more extreme, but in his best stories Pancake presents jarring leaps from sentence to sentence, written like the lyrics of beautiful, painful folk songs. At the start of “Trilobites,” he writes: “I was born in this country and I have never much wanted to leave. I remember Pop’s dead eyes looking at me. They were real dry, and that took something out of me.” And at the end: “I look a long time at the hollow shadows hiding her eyes. She is somebody I met a long time ago.”
But Hemingway’s stories and novels too often stop in the physical world, at the wall of muscle or hard jaw, preventing us entry to spirit or something more than psychology. When Hemingway finds the metaphysical in The Old Man and the Sea he is most successful, but by then it is too late. Pancake sets his prose in a melancholy, lost-holy tone, and he works at more intricate disturbances than Hemingway attempts in character or place. Ethics, morals, honor, the past, and the spirit all reside in the spaces between Pancake’s words.
The rest of The Collected Breece D’J Pancake attempts to supplement previous editions with unpublished and uncompleted stories meant for different collections or novels, along with letters written mostly to his mother. The fragments, of course, do not match his best stories or even his worst — a collector’s set — but the letters shape the other story of the book, the story of Pancake’s life and legend. While the same despair that corrodes Pancake’s characters surfaces in some letters, especially at the end — “I’m not good enough to work or marry, but I’m good enough to write;” “Last night I dreamed of the ‘happy hunting ground.’ I passed through a place of bones that looked human, but weren’t—the skulls were wrong;” “Short time gone, long time coming. Come hook in the gills, come bullet between doe’s shoulders, come long cold and the Cross, come time to lay down, come time to get awake, I’ll remember you with love” — many of the letters work against the image of the depressed, solitary artist meant to die. Their inclusion presents a different Breece D’J Pancake than the one haunting elegies and occasional essays. This is a living man with a range of emotions and experiences, describing his travels, his finances, and his constant yearning to write well and be published.
In the early letters, we meet a more essayistic, more freely lyrical Pancake who writes of how in Mexico
there are old cars sitting dead in the front yard as a testimony to those inside the abode hut that had tried and failed to achieve that wispy, elusive dream of being rich. But in the shining reflection of that rusting chrome bumper there still remains that faint glimmer of hope that someday, somewhere, someone’s bound to drop that million pesos.
In contrast to the locals, he writes he is “a Cadillac Cowboy,” “the physical product of two hundred years of murder, bloodshed, thievery, slavery . . . and social degeneration.” He dreams of entering politics to implement “a total social medicine program and a revamped education program in West Virginia.”
Not long after, his life turns to comedy when he describes his insubordinate and uninspiring students at a military academy (someone clogged the toilet by flushing an orange, then defecated on it; Pancake threatened to make him eat the orange). He also worries about finances, calculating how many meals he could get out of a piece of meat and the price per meal; he sounds triumphant when The Atlantic accepts “Trilobites;” he reports (and buries the sorrow of) his rejection to a woman whose father would not accept his class; he rails on academia, and he rhapsodizes about how “I want to know my country. I want to touch, taste, smell, and hear as well as see this land.” The letters rescue Pancake from his final act, recollecting the moments that preceded it. And through so many of them, he thinks about and works at writing, even saying in one letter, “I’m shooting for something better — not necessarily in money. They can take that away in taxes and funeral bills. No, I want peace, and I’ll get it yet. You watch me.”
Did he find peace? The collected works suggest reasons for Pancake’s suicide, like rejection and self-loathing, but they do not give definitive answers because there can be none. And now it is impossible to imagine it any other way. Breece D’J Pancake, for example, working as the Program Director at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, seems impossible. So does the image of a highly-praised and distinguished Breece D’J Pancake, accepted by the literary elite, leading courses in a tenure-track position at a state university, winning national awards, giving lectures, keynoting at creative writing conferences, scribbling introductions and meaningless blurbs for books. Breece lived an outcast’s life; at UVA he exaggerated his difference; he wrote differently, like how only a solitary person can write, focusing great energy on the hollows of character and tone; and he died an outcast, different, solitary, alone. When he killed himself on June 8, 1979, he made himself forever an outcast, a ghost in the literature that offered readers a few masterful stories, a few good stories, letters and fragments of sudden beauty, and left before anyone could join or understand him.
Life becomes art; art becomes life. A ghost, Allison P. Davis wrote recently, is a “mechanism to talk to one another about the way the world is inexplicably weird sometimes, and about the deep emotional experiences we feel living in it.” Breece D’J Pancake is a ghost: his work circles the voids of communication and the uncanny: he occupies the memories and dreams of those he loved, with his writing, reissued every few years, always returning from the fringes of being forgotten.
His ghost reminds me of that man at the bar in the pizzeria of my youth whose name I cannot remember. That man seemed desperate to speak about literature, not just with me but with anybody. He kept trying to talk to me about literature and his writing — even when I had escaped the bar, when I had joked with the busboys and the hosts when I had gone seeking Nicole Jones when I had collected my pizza and held it to my body with both hands — even then, with the steaming pizza in my hands, he stopped me and continued monologuing about writing, even saying, I’m sorry, it’s just that I haven’t spoken to someone about writing in so long, but just a few more minutes, I’ll buy you a drink, I’ll even pay you for your time, sit down with me, just a few more minutes, please.
I did not sit with him and eventually I left. But I remember how he told me that he wrote sparingly, on a typewriter, leaving no other traces of his prose. Every morning, when he finished writing, he would place the work in a box with the rest of his stories. In the time of copy-paste, of duplicates, of mass email and mass submissions, he made only one of each story. He said he did this because he was writing for the sake of writing, and maybe someone would happen upon his stories one day, and maybe someone would quietly enjoy them, and maybe the stories would last.
Now, after having met the figures in Breece Pancake, the shapes of the man’s personality and the shapes of his stories — those reticent, mysterious stories that raise their lips at you like tree shadows in the dark — I wish I had sat to listen to that man in the bar. I wish I would have eavesdropped on his imagination and his inner voice. I wish I would have been able to open his box of single-printed stories, where I might discover prose faintly glowing with life — perhaps, I wonder, as strange, mystifying, alluring, and haunting as the stories, letters, and fragments of Breece D’J Pancake. •