A Ghost Is Born

The Collected Breece D'J Pancake: Stories, Fragments, Letters By Breece D’J Pancake. New York: Library of America. 384 pages. $25.

The cover of The Collected Breece D'J Pancake: Stories, Fragments, Letters

IN 1975, BREECE D’J PANCAKE was a twenty-three-year-old English teacher at Staunton Military Academy in the Shenandoah Valley. He was half a day’s drive from Milton, West Virginia, where he’d grown up. He hated the brutal, stultifying culture of the school, but the job was enough to support himself as long as he lived cheaply, which was important because his father had multiple sclerosis and could no longer work. His parents, Helen and C. R., said they were getting by, but he worried about their long-term financial security. Pancake was a loner, a dreamer, a contrarian, a depressive—in short, a writer. The other good thing about Staunton was that it left him plenty of time to write. Nobody could have known this at the time, but he was at the height of his productivity. Between 1974 and 1976 he either started or finished nine of the twelve stories that constitute his life’s work, a small bright star in the firmament of twentieth-century American short fiction, now in a new edition from the Library of America.

But let’s linger a while longer in 1975. Pancake had introduced himself to John Casey, who chaired the creative-writing program at the University of Virginia in nearby Charlottesville. Casey was so impressed by Pancake’s work that he invited the young writer to sit in on his fall workshop. Just as the term was starting, Pancake’s father died from complications of his illness. Less than three weeks later, Pancake’s good friend Matthew Heard died in a car accident. The double loss was crushing. In his mother’s words: “That liked to kill that boy.” He started going to a local Presbyterian church. “Don’t fall over,” he wrote to her about it. “I just thought it would beat sitting in my room all morning.”

Pancake applied to the graduate programs at UVA and Iowa. He was accepted to both, but Iowa couldn’t promise funding. The money was important, but perhaps not as important as the opportunity to stay near his widowed mother and to study with John Casey, in whom he now sought a surrogate father. Pancake started graduate school at UVA in the fall of 1976, where he also worked with James Alan McPherson and Peter Taylor. He had a stint as an assistant to the novelist Mary Lee Settle. He listened to a lot of his favorite singer, Phil Ochs, who had committed suicide in April. He studied the style and structure of his favorite novel, Waiting for Nothing by Tom Kromer, which is dedicated “to Jolene, who turned off the gas.” A relentless self-mythologizer, Pancake exaggerated both his poverty and his drawl. He struggled to keep a handle on his drinking. He became an initiate of the Catholic church, taking the name John at his confirmation.

Breece Dexter John Pancake. D. J. became D’J due to a typo on the proof pages of his short story “Trilobites,” which McPherson and Casey had helped him sell to The Atlantic. He thought the mistake was funny and somehow fitting, so he let it stand and claimed it as his own. “Trilobites” was published in December of 1977. It was a huge accomplishment and people at UVA were shocked and impressed, though not as shocked and impressed as Pancake had hoped they would be. He was paid $750 for the story. He donated all the money to his church.

In 1978 The Atlantic bought “In the Dry,” a grim story whose title comes from a grim passage in the Gospel of Luke. There were inquiries from publishing houses. The New Yorker nibbled but didn’t bite. He applied to the Millay Colony and the Fine Arts Work Center. He proposed to his girlfriend but her father nixed the engagement. His drinking worsened. Things started to spiral. He outlined some novel ideas, drafted chapter openings, revised old manuscripts, but was slowing down. He read submissions for the Virginia Quarterly Review. He was a prolific giver of gifts: fossils he found, fish he caught, wild game he shot with one of the many guns he owned. He once gave a gun to McPherson, who didn’t want it. He eventually gave away every gun in his possession save for the double-barreled shotgun with which he shot himself on Palm Sunday, 1979. He was twenty-six years old.

THE STORIES OF BREECE D’J PANCAKE was published in 1983, with a foreword by McPherson and an afterword by Casey, who was—and still is—Pancake’s literary executor. The book contained the six stories Pancake had published during his lifetime: “Trilobites,” “In the Dry,” “The Mark,” “Hollow,” “The Way It Has to Be,” and “Time and Again.” These were supplemented by another six that Casey admitted were probably not up to Pancake’s own exacting standards but existed as complete drafts and had seen at least some substantial revision. These were “Fox Hunters,” “The Scrapper,” “The Honored Dead,” “A Room Forever,” “The Salvation of Me,” and “First Day of Winter.” Beyond that, nothing existed but a few dozen pages’ worth of fragments and juvenilia.

In the New York Times Book Review, Joyce Carol Oates compared Pancake’s debut to Hemingway’s In Our Time: “the writing, lean, taut, pared back, near-flawless in its uninflected cadences, is perfectly suited to its content.” She noted that the collection was “necessarily an uneven gathering” but that “the most powerful of the stories . . . are as compactly and tightly written as prose poems and should be read (and reread) with extreme care.”

Pancake’s depictions of the culture and geography of Appalachia and the Trans-Allegheny were all but unprecedented. The hills and hollows of West Virginia were largely neglected in American literature, even the intensely regionalist literatures of the South, possibly because West Virginia had fought with the Union during the Civil War, and so had little to contribute to the revisionist horseshit of Lost Cause sentimentality. Pancake seems to know everything about this place, from its hilltops to its coal mines to its barrooms, and he has an eye for the small, sharp details that bring it to life. In “Hollow,” when Buddy wakes up on the floor of his trailer after a night of drinking and brawling, there is “a little ball of rayon batting against his nostril as he breathed.” Bo, in “Fox Hunters,” “stepped onto the pavement feeling tired and moved a few paces until headlights flooded his path, showing up the highway steam and making the road give birth to little ghosts beneath his feet.” At the same time, Pancake is always attentive to the natural world. He finds a kind of holiness in the history-dwarfing scale of geologic time. Here’s a justly famous passage from “Trilobites”:

I lean back, try to forget these fields and flanking hills. A long time before me or these tools, the Teays flowed here. I can almost feel the cold waters and the tickling the trilobites make when they crawl. All the water from the old mountains flowed west. But the land lifted. I have only the bottoms and stone animals I collect. I blink and breathe. My father is a khaki cloud in the canebrakes, and Ginny is no more to me than the bitter smell in the blackberry briers up on the ridge.

“Trilobites,” like many of Pancake’s stories, is set in the town of Rock Camp, his fictionalized version of Milton. Colly, the narrator, has lost his father and there’s pressure to sell the failing family farm. Ginny, his onetime sweetheart, has moved to Florida without him. He’s hardly out of high school and already feels futureless. When Ginny comes back to town to visit her parents, she takes Colly out for a nostalgic drive and they end up having sex amid the rubble of an abandoned train depot, though Ginny’s nostalgia starts to curdle after she cuts her arm on a piece of glass, and Colly becomes acutely aware that he is being used. “She isn’t making love, she’s getting laid. All right, I think, all right. Get laid. I pull her pants around her ankles, rut her.” Colly retreats into a fantasy about a friend’s underage sister but that image quickly dissolves into a traumatic childhood memory of his father whipping him; the physical terror he felt as a boy somehow rhymes with the inchoate emotional pain he’s enduring now. It’s one of the loneliest sex scenes I’ve ever read. (Another contender for that thorny crown is in this same book, in the story “A Room Forever.”) Afterward, Ginny drives off, leaving Colly to walk home from the depot. He seems markedly less lonely as soon as he is actually alone, and the story closes on a moment of hard-earned, breath-catching poetry. I don’t think that quoting it quite does it justice, but read “Trilobites” yourself and see if you don’t agree that its ending is up there with Cheever’s “Goodbye, My Brother,” Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues,” or Amy Hempel’s “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried.”

“Hollow,” “The Honored Dead,” and “In the Dry” all rank easily among Pancake’s strongest work. They’re brilliant by any standard, and when you stop to think that they were written by a guy less than halfway through grad school or his twenties—holy shit. But then you’ve got stories like “Fox Hunters” and “A Room Forever,” which are powerfully conceived but clumsily executed, while a few others are, to put it plainly, not very good. “Time and Again,” for example, is about a snowplow-driving serial killer who keeps hogs at home to eat his victims’ remains. “The Way It Has to Be” is about a guy who wants to kill some other guy but his woman thinks he shouldn’t, so he has to kill her, too. They’re both silly noir exercises self-closeted to their own status as camp. I understand why Casey included them, and at this late date they’re hardly worth criticizing, but I have to believe that if Pancake had lived he would be embarrassed by them today.

Breece D'J Pancake, 1979.
Breece D'J Pancake, 1979. West Virginia University/West Virginia & Regional History Center

In his foreword, McPherson reminisces about how he and Pancake bonded as outsiders in snooty, genteel Charlottesville. (Pancake was poor; McPherson was Black.) But McPherson also admits that “there was a mystery about Breece Pancake that I will not claim to have penetrated. This mystery is not racial; it had to do with that small room into which his imagination retreated from time to time. I always thought that the gifts he gave were a way of keeping people away from this very personal area, of focusing their attention on the persona he had created out of the raw materials of his best traits.” McPherson mentored Pancake but would not allow himself to be drawn into the chaos of his student’s life. Pancake sensed and resented that a boundary had been drawn, occasionally complaining in his letters of McPherson’s detachment.

John Casey, for his part, drew no such boundary. “He was about to turn twenty-seven when he died,” Casey writes in his afterword. “I was forty. But half the time he treated me (and I treated him) as if I were his kid brother.” When Pancake converted to Catholicism, he asked Casey to be his godfather. “This godfather arrangement soon turned upside down. Breece started getting after me about going to mass, going to confession, instructing my daughters. It wasn’t so much out of righteousness as out of gratitude and affection, but he could be blistering. And then penitent.”

McPherson won the Pulitzer Prize in 1978 for his second story collection, Elbow Room, then never published another book of fiction. He left UVA for Iowa and taught there until he died in 2016. John Casey won the National Book Award in 1989 for a novel I had never heard of before I read his Wikipedia page to write this review. He retired from UVA in 2018 amid a storm of sexual-harassment allegations. I mention these things only to make the point that we’re far past the day when Pancake requires their literary bona fides to vouch for his. The student is far more widely read than either of his old teachers are, or probably ever were. The enduring value of the foreword and afterword then are as primary-source documents, eyewitness accounts. The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake has been in print for nearly forty years and every edition that I’m aware of contains both McPherson’s and Casey’s essays. At this point, they feel as much a part of the book as the stories themselves. For better or worse, their intimacy and reverence establish the collection as a reliquary: they are the gilded box and velvet pillow that hold the sacred bones.

And so here they are again in the Library of America’s Collected Breece D’J Pancake: Stories, Fragments, Letters, along with a new introduction by Jayne Anne Phillips. She is a fellow West Virginian, born the same year as Pancake, and though their lives never intersected, she gamely recounts the missed connections. His first, abortive attempt at college was at West Virginia Wesleyan in the town of Buckhannon, where she was a senior in high school at the time. If he had gone to Iowa instead of UVA he would have been in her cohort. If he hadn’t killed himself, and if he had chosen the Fine Arts Work Center fellowship over the Millay fellowship (he was accepted to both) they would have met in Provincetown in the fall of ’79. This trivia is charming in its way, but I’d have been more charmed by it if she hadn’t gotten the date of his death wrong by two months, or led with the fatuous assertion that “Breece Pancake’s stories comprise no less than an American Dubliners.”

There’s no shortage of things to admire in Pancake’s work, but it is (as Oates observed) uneven, and in some cases (as Casey admitted) clearly unfinished. Phillips is absolutely right that “his stories build their own rhythm and throb, shift past to far past to present in ghostly dissolves, sculpt their lonely, ineffable power.” But she’s wrong to say that he was “never, truly, anyone’s apprentice.” In fact he was desperate to be held in the mastering hands of aesthetic and moral authority—Casey’s, McPherson’s, Ochs’s, Kromer’s, Christ’s—and part of the value of these stories is their well-preserved fossil record of those several overlapping and sometimes contradictory apprenticeships. Pancake’s stories offer a rare glimpse of genius in late gestation, fighting to be born. The rough edges, loose ends, false steps, and psychic self-exposure are all part of that difficult birth, and it hardly diminishes the writer or the work to say so. One does the stories no favors by holding them to a standard of individual excellence and collective effect that they cannot possibly meet.

What would be accurate to say, however, is that Pancake himself—and the general tenor of Pancake worship—strongly resembles the portrayal of Michael Furey in “The Dead,” the final story in Dubliners. Like Furey, Pancake was a beloved boy lost at the height of his promise. Any serious attempt at assessing the work is shadowed, if not overshadowed, by this romantic grief. John Casey once said, of Pancake’s splattered blood and brain matter, “If I could have eaten some of it off the wall that night, I would have.”

I don’t doubt for a moment that he meant it, but Jesus fucking Christ.

I’M GLAD TO SEE Breece D’J Pancake in the Library of America, where he surely belongs, but I wish that more care had been put into this book. I mentioned earlier that Phillips got the date of Pancake’s death wrong. Anyone can accidentally type “June” when they mean “April,” but she specifies that he died “twenty-one days before his twenty-seventh birthday,” which tells me that she really thought this was right, and also that her introduction wasn’t fact-checked, since the correct date is given in McPherson’s foreword a few pages later. April 8, 1979, is important not simply because it is accurate, and because it was Palm Sunday, but also because Phil Ochs committed suicide on April 9, 1976. Anyone who has studied Pancake knows how significant that date would have been to him, and anyone who has had a suicidal depressive in their lives knows how easily a fraught anniversary can become a trigger. To be clear: this isn’t Phillips’s fault; she wrote the introduction, but she is not the editor. In fact, no editor is credited on the volume, which likely explains why it also lacks a chronology, bibliography, or biographical essay. The absence of a guiding curatorial intelligence is palpable and much lamented.

It is certainly nice to have the selected letters in the same spine as the stories, but who—other than a Pancake super fan—is going to read them? The letters contain flashes of insight into Pancake’s writing process and inner life, but few are objects of literary merit in their own right and those that are have been widely circulated and quoted from for as long as his stories have been in print. I’m thinking in particular of Pancake’s final letter to his mother, from March, 1979. He writes that he has dreamed of a “happy hunting ground,” a kind of cross between Eden and Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones, where “you could shoot without gun, never kill, but the rabbits would do a little dance, all as if it were a game, and they were playing it too. Then Winter came with heavy powder-snow, and big deer, horses, goats and buffaloes—all white—snorted, tossed their heads, and I lay down with my Army blanket, made my bed in the snow, then dreamed within the dream.” This is gorgeous on its own terms, and in light of his suicide, it is heartrending. But it also strikes me as deeply naive: a fantasy of actions without consequences, which is a child’s—or an alcoholic’s—idea of freedom.

(For a better selection of Pancake’s letters, and a proper biography, one must look to Thomas E. Douglass’s A Room Forever: The Life, Work, and Letters of Breece D’J Pancake. I also recommend two excellent essays: “Breece D’J Pancake” by Cynthia Kadohata, which appeared in Mississippi Review in 1989, and “The Secret Handshake” by Samantha Hunt, which appeared in The Believer in 2005. Both are available for free online.)

Because Pancake’s productive period was so concentrated, it’s no surprise that the stories are largely of a piece in their concerns and approach or that they tend to the same set of psychic wounds. Fully half the stories feature characters who have lost one or both parents. There are several in which the narrative slips away from the protagonist’s point of view into that of a nearby animal (bobcat, possum, fox) that is observing him. Hills and fields are full of arrowheads, fossils, and Indigenous burial mounds. He loves the word “ghost,” which is always used figuratively, and the word “whore,” which unfortunately never is. Poverty is pandemic. Bourbon is breakfast. Sex is repulsive yet overpowering—something you cannot help but want and cannot help but hate yourself for wanting, so inevitably you also end up hating whoever gives it to you. Everyone is staggering through what Samantha Hunt rightly calls “a landscape strewn with derailed hope.”

On this reread I found myself most drawn to “The Mark” and “The Salvation of Me,” two lesser-sung stories that stand out in part because they’re the least similar to the other ten, or to each other. “The Mark” is lurid and flawed yet it leaves me awestruck every time I read it. Reva is married to a man she doesn’t love and haunted by memories of teenage incest with her erstwhile brother. Every paragraph pulses with Southern-gothic melodrama. Reva loses a pregnancy, watches monkeys have a threesome at a traveling carnival, tortures herself with fantasies of her brother sleeping with prostitutes, and finally sets fire to the family barn. The story ends with her sitting on the front porch steps watching the barn burn. Jackie, a farmhand, is trying to get her on her feet. She’s looking up at him. “His huge head hid the moon, and, when she cried against him, the fire.” There’s one more line after this one, and if I were the editor I’d have cut it, but let’s go ahead and call this a perfect ending anyway.

“The Salvation of Me,” which Pancake began writing in late 1975, is notable less for the story it tells than the way it tells it. He experiments with an associative, voice-driven style that feels more like Saul Bellow or Barry Hannah than Ernest Hemingway or Andre Dubus. It is such a stark departure from his standard mode that one suspects he was trying to imitate something he’d read, quite possibly one of the two men aforementioned, though it could have been some dark horse like Grace Paley or Thomas McGuane. Just listen to this:

All I know for sure is that Chester made it big, and came back to show it off, and that I never hated him more in the years he was gone than I did in the two hours he was home. The fact that without Chester I had twice as many cars to fix, half as much gas to pump, and nobody to road-race or play chicken with on weekends made up for itself in giving me all my own cigarettes, since Chester was the only bum in the station.

I’m frankly shocked at how well Pancake takes to the rhythms of wisecracking and the kinetic energy of improvisation. An ex-drinker is described as “stoned sober out of his mind.” The narrator marries and divorces within the span of a single antic paragraph.

When I think of the lost potential of Breece D’J Pancake, I think of “The Mark” and “The Salvation of Me.” I’m not interested in the final polish he would have put on his rough gems, or how the fragments might have blossomed into drafts. I have never once tried to imagine the fully fleshed-out plots of the two novels he outlined. The only Pancake that I’m interested in imagining is the one who surely shocked himself when he looked down and saw he’d written that penultimate line of “The Mark,” or that first draft of “The Salvation of Me.” I imagine him reading over his pages and thinking, Hell, I didn’t know I could do that. And then venturing a second thought: I wonder what else I don’t even know I can do. This version of Pancake grows and changes over years and decades. He continuously renews his vocation, is always willing to take chances and leave himself susceptible to self-surprise. Would we have gotten that body of work if he had lived? Impossible to say, pointless to speculate. But isn’t it pretty to think so.

Justin Taylor is the author of Riding with the Ghost (Random House, 2020).