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Breece D'J Pancake's Short, Stunning Career

by Chris Lehmann
Jul 27, 2006

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Call them buttonhole books, the ones you urge passionately on friends, colleagues and passersby. All readers have them — and so do writers. This summer, NPR.org talks with authors about their favorite buttonhole books in the weekly series "You Must Read This."

In his afterword to The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake, the young writer's former teacher, John Casey, writes of the sensation of being haunted — literally — by his student. Reading Pancake's fiction offers an echo of that feeling.

Pancake killed himself in 1979 at the age of 26, not long after his first stories were published in The Atlantic Monthly. He wrote about the West Virginia hills of his birth — "the pockets of neglected farm and mining country where people lose their livelihoods, their friends and lovers, their land and their birthrights, but remain stubbornly hewn in place. Pancake also filled the landscape of his fiction with similar stoic outcroppings from the natural world, serving both as symbols of endurance and mementos mori — skeletons, trilobite fossils, fugitive opossums and dogs. Susan Straight, author most recently of A Million Nightingales, discusses Pancake's brief but powerful work.

Q. How did you first come across Pancake's stories?

It was when I was in grad school, in 1983. A professor told me about the fiction writer with the odd name who was from rural hills peopled with farmers and hunters and outsiders, people like the ones I was trying to write about. In our graduate school class at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, the magazines everyone talked about sending fiction to were The New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly. The fact that this writer had been published in The Atlantic Monthly and elsewhere, and that he'd then killed himself, fascinated some people and pissed off others.

Q. They were pissed off because they thought Pancake had frittered away this great opportunity they were struggling to reach?

Probably. But for me, his work had nothing to do with that, and everything to do with that deep immersion, the utter purity of the place, the way Pancake expected the reader to pay attention to the language and land and dialogue. He laid out this world for us, and we were lucky to see it — that's what I felt coming from the pages.

Q. Yes, there's not much of that sort of stoicism, or simple consciousness of the meaning of one's home, in a lot of American fiction today. It's become much more a saga of collective striving, and everything that goes with it — collective amnesia, bitterness, and the flight from one's roots.

That's what it was that made Pancake better than anyone else I read back then, especially the writers I was supposed to emulate, adore, and learn from — the ones my peers loved, the ones writing about New York and Iowa and Boston, about cities and hotel rooms and restaurants and subliminal impulses and sensory deprivation tanks and therapy and cocaine. Pancake wrote about people like mine, in a sense — I was obsessed with the idea of leaving home, in rural Southern California. But after I had done that, I already knew I could never live without the place, as straitened and awful as the circumstances had been, and would be, when I returned. The misery of that deep love, and possible death or starvation of body or soul, was so intense that I recognized from these stories that it existed elsewhere in America.

Q. The other thing that these stories underline is the working lives that keep characters rooted to the spot — another thing you don't read much about in latter-day American fiction.

Yes, that was very much the other thing that spoke to me about Pancake's writing. When I was in graduate school, I had two jobs, was married to a man who worked night shift at a correctional institution, and no one in my writing program ever talked about work — with the exception of the writer Brett Lott, who drove an RC Cola truck. When my husband and I called home to California, during this time of deep recession in the early 1980s, half our friends and relatives were unemployed, and many had turned to selling drugs.

I remember reading about work in Pancake's stories, how it defined people, not just for their physical survival (which was essential in those bleak hills and valleys and even when the characters left) but also their emotional survival. They could not exist without work. Even in the brief story "The Way It Has To Be," when Alena is on the run with a lover/murderer/armed robber, she declares her independence by getting a promise of a waitress position, and then she calls her mother and also tells her lover, "I got a job, I got a job." It is a mantra, one I heard all my life in rural southern California.

One of my favorite paragraphs from "In the Dry," when Ottie studies the relatives having the party at his foster father's farm, knowing how much he has hated them and been hated by them: "In the hot yard, Gerlocks unfold their tables, and their laughter hurts him. They are double-knit flatlanders long spread to cities: a people of name, not past. He has been in their cities, and has jockeyed his semi through their quiet streets seeing their fine houses. But always from the phone book to the street he went, and never to a doorstep."

Q. You had mentioned that you buy this collection as a gift for your more distinguished writing students. What sort of recognition, or hope, do you think they might draw from these bleak stories of a pinched, vanishing world?

I'd want young writers to heed the fullness of his fictional world, as well as his anger and exact prose. When the miserable, loyal, starving son hunts for his ungrateful father in "First Day of Winter," after finding out that his more prosperous brother who has left for the city will not help the failing farm, he "laid down his rifle, crossed the fence, and took it up again. He headed deeper into the oaks, until they began to mingle with the yellow pine along the ridge. He saw no squirrels, but sat on a stump with oaks on all sides, their roots and bottom trunk brushed clean by squirrel tails. He grew numb with waiting, with cold; taking a nickel from his pocket, he raked it against the notched stock, made the sound of a squirrel cutting nuts. Soon enough he saw the flick of a tail..."

I tell these students, who are writing about their own worlds, whether the fields of Coachella Valley or the speed labs of Pomona or the orange groves of Riverside, to get it right, like that, and to feel how the imagery and anger and melancholy of Pancake's misfits and good guys is felt by the reader, through the perfect setting of scene and place.

I was 24 when I read this book. I give it to students who are 22 and 28, who need these stories the way I did. I read the stories first, back then, and the introduction afterward, the part where we learn about Pancake's depression and generosity and outsized personality and guilt, where we hear about how he took his life. But the fiction, which is full of fossils and perfect mouse skeletons and crushed bones and people hurt by accident and by purpose, is what I want my best writers to know, too. I want them to see that this writer thought he was not finished, in a sense, and struggled with the creation of his own place, and that that place is now captured forever for us, perfect as a trilobite, and thrilling as the first time I read about it and saw the ridges and valleys and water maples and foxes and coal seams. These men were like the men I knew, and Pancake's stories, along with his sorrow and fierce loyalty to his earth and his anger, helped me understand that I could write about my own people, too, without having to leave my home.

See the previous installment of 'You Must Read This'

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Susan Straight's new novel is A Million Nightingales, set in 19th-century Louisiana and featuring a freed slave woman who eventually becomes a land owner and buys her son from bondage. Her previous books, including The Gettin' Place and Highwire Moon, were all set in a fictional Southern California landscape. A regular commentator for All Things Considered, Straight was born and still lives in Riverside, Calif.

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