The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake
The “packaging” of The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake seems expressly designed to corrupt judgment. The first sentence of the jacket flap informs us that the writer killed himself before his twenty-seventh birthday. Before reaching the stories themselves, the reader is waylaid by a foreword by James Alan McPherson—an edgy, somewhat defensive, and moving account of the friendship between the established black writer and the truculent, hard-drinking young white man from the West Virginia hills as it developed in the not always friendly environment of Mr. Jefferson’s university. Then, when the stories have been read, one comes (if one hasn’t already succumbed to the temptation to jump ahead) to an afterword—less defensive, equally moving—by John Casey, the director of creative writing at the University of Virginia, who became not only Breece Pancake’s friend but also his godfather at the time of Pancake’s evidently troubled conversion to Catholicism. An anguished and difficult friend, a barroom fighter, an impulsive giver of gifts, a Catholic suicide—the Breece Pancake of these short memoirs conforms almost too patly to the image of the doomed young writer so cherished by a romantic and vulturine public.
And the stories? I would say that about half of the dozen that make up the volume clearly merit publication in their own right; the others belong, I think, to the category of superior workshop pieces, the kind that would (and should) receive encouragement from a discerning instructor in creative writing. At his best Pancake is an artful narrator, often indirect in his approach, slow to reveal the situation underlying the speech and behavior of his characters. Several of the pieces require two or more readings before their implications can be fully grasped. But what is apparent on every page is Pancake’s ability to recreate, in sharp and memorable detail, the West Virginia landscape of ancient, weathered hills and hollows, of half-abandoned mining villages, rusting trailers, tank cars, sad cafés, and impoverished farms—a landscape that serves as a metaphorical equivalent for the lives of his characters, most of them trapped, crippled, or obsolete. The appeal to the senses is constant.
In the first (and, I think, most successful) of the stories, “Trilobites,” the narrator is a struggling young farmer, Colly, with a strong love of the land which is frustrated by his inability to wrest a living from it.
I reach the high barn and start my tractor, then drive to the knob at the end of our land and stop. I sit there, smoke, look again at the cane. The rows curve tight, but around them is a sort of scar of clay, and the leaves have a purplish blight…. I know the cane is too far gone to worry about the blight. Far off, somebody chops wood, and the ax-bites echo back to me. The hillsides are baked here and have heat ghosts….
“I’m just not no good at it,” I say. “It just don’t do …