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 to work your ass off at something you’re not no good at.”
The chopping stops. I listen to the beat of grasshopper wings, and strain to spot blight on the far side of the bottoms.
I say, “Yessir, Colly, you couldn’t grow pole beans in a pile of horseshit.”
Nothing goes right for Colly. He does not want to leave but his widowed mother is determined to sell the farm and move to Akron. His unfaithful girlfriend wonders why they can’t have any fun. In a deserted railway depot, they rut on the floor (“She isn’t making love, she’s getting laid”), her head “rolling in splinters of paint and glass.” In his depression Colly summons the image of his dead father, who had been a train-riding hobo in the Thirties and thus a symbol of freedom and the untrammeled life.
Colly’s situation and his response to it are typical of most of the young (or not so young) males in Pancake’s stories—Buddy, Bo, Skeevy, Hollis, Ottie…. Suffering inarticulately, speaking stoically bitten-off phrases, they mourn dead fathers or brothers, endure the whining of feckless mothers, and expect the worst of their girlfriends or wives, who are restless, looking for a good time, likely at any moment to turn whore. The coal smoke of depression that hangs over the stories is rent from time to time by violence, much of it directed at animals. The details are often revolting. Colly, who craves “turkle” meat, gaffs a snapping turtle in a creek, decapitates it, hears its decapitated movements in a sack, fries its meat in a skillet. In the story called “Hollow,” Buddy, who is a coal miner, tires of the beans-and-turnips slop served up by his faithless Sal and kills a pregnant doe, whose butchering is minutely described. In “Fox Hunters,” a sixteen-year-old misfit named Bo goes out with a group of older men who get drunk and tell dirty stories by the fire while their hounds pursue a fox through the night; at the last moment Bo, so drunk that he can hardly stand, tries to shoot the hound that is closing in on the exhausted fox but misses, loses his father’s pistol, and staggers to the edge of the clearing to vomit.
The range of feeling within the stories is extremely narrow. Humor is wholly absent. Even a trace of it would have redeemed, one feels, the absurdity of the piece called “Time and Again,” which is obliquely narrated by an old hillbilly who, it turns out, is inclined to murder young hitchhikers in order to feed them to his flesh-eating hogs. One need not doubt the accuracy of Pancake’s details to recognize that the despair, anger, cynicism about women, and cruelty that he depicts are also projections of a state of mind. However tragically such feelings and attitudes must have figured in the life and early death of the author, they tend in his fiction to take on—in their obsessive reiteration—a quality of late-adolescent Weltschmerz that verges on the maudlin.
William Kennedy’s new novel, Ironweed, is also accompanied by outriders—in this case two earlier works that have been simultaneously reissued as Penguin paperbacks. These are Legs (1975) and Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game (1978), both of which belong, as does Ironweed, to Kennedy’s “Albany cycle.” They are to be welcomed, for together they form an impressive body of work by an entertaining and inventive writer who is by no means as well known as he should be. Collectively—and from strikingly different angles—the three novels reconstruct a time and a place and a population: the little world of Irish-Americans living in Albany, New York, as Kennedy imagines it to have existed five and more decades ago.
Legs is a fictional account of the career of “Legs” Diamond, the notorious Prohibition-era gangster who was shot to death in an Albany rooming house in 1931 just after he had been acquitted (to the tumultuous cheers of his fans) of kidnapping charges. Though less centered in Albany than the other two novels, Legs throws its own distinctive light on the Irish-American ethos of that city through the ambivalent self-revelations of its narrator, Marcus Gorman, a rising Albany lawyer with political ambitions who, like millions of tabloid-reading Americans, allows himself to be seduced by the glamorous aura surrounding a psychopathic criminal of ability, daring, and reckless brutality. Not a profound work, Legs is fast moving and absorbing, expert in its documentation of the period.
In Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game, a more thickly textured novel set in 1938, the focus is upon the interconnections of Albany’s Democratic machine, run by the McCall brothers, and a colorful, low-life collection of poolroom sharks, poker players, bartenders, bookies, and assorted night crawlers who run errands for the bosses and depend upon them for handouts, protection, and patronage. Here the ethical point of view is supplied chiefly by a middle-class journalist, Martin Daugherty, while the action itself centers upon a sharply dressed and resourceful petty gambler, Billy Phelan, who has his own peculiar standards to uphold.
Ironweed, also set in 1938, reveals a radical shift not only in its angle of vision but also in its style. In it Kennedy largely abandons the rather breezy, quasi-journalistic narrative voice of his previous fiction and resorts to a more poetically charged, often surrealistic use of language as he re-creates the experiences and mental states of an alcoholic bum, Francis Phelan, who, after a long absence, is once again in Albany, lurching around the missions and flophouses of the city’s South End. Owing fifty dollars to Marcus Gorman for keeping him out of jail on a charge of falsely registering to vote (twenty-one times, at a fee of five dollars for each registration), Francis sobers up enough to find work shoveling dirt in a Catholic cemetery. There he is observed by various ghosts from his past, ghosts whose characterization provides a good example of the hallucinatory mode that Kennedy frequently employs in this novel:
Francis’s mother twitched nervously in her grave as the truck carried him nearer to her; and Francis’s father lit his pipe, smiled at his wife’s discomfort, and looked out from his own bit of sod to catch a glimpse of how much his son had changed since the train accident.
Francis’s father smoked roots of grass that died in the periodic droughts afflicting the cemetery. He stored the root essence in his pockets until it was brittle to the touch, then pulverized it between his fingers and packed his pipe. Francis’s mother wove crosses from the dead dandelions and other deep-rooted weeds; careful to preserve their fullest length, she wove them while they were still in the green stage of death, then ate them with an insatiable revulsion.
From another pair of ghosts—two brawny young brothers “skewered by the same whiskey bottle in 1884, dumped into the Erie Canal in front of the Black Rag saloon in Watervliet, and then pushed under and drowned with a long stick”—we get our first physical description of Francis:
The brothers looked at Francis’s clothes, his ragged brown twill suit jacket, black baggy pants, and filthy fireman’s blue shirt, and felt a kinship with him that owed nothing to blood ties. His shoes were as worn as the brogans they both had been wearing on the last day of their lives. The brothers read also in Francis’s face the familiar sears of alcoholic desolation which both had developed in their graves.
The dead keep appearing, fully characterized, throughout the book, and with their aid the reader can fill out the saga of Francis Phelan, the finest baseball player ever to come out of Albany, a man, capable of both tenderness and violence to an exceptional degree, who is fated to kill and to run—and to kill again and keep running until he has reached the mucky bottom-side of degradation where the only question a man asks is, “How do I get through the next twenty minutes?”
His first killing stemmed from his talent as a ballplayer: a smooth round stone, pitched with consummate skill by Francis during a transit strike in 1901, laid open the skull of a strikebreaker, causing the militia to fire into the crowd and kill two innocent bystanders. The second killing occurred in 1916 when Francis accidentally dropped his thirteen-day-old son while lifting the baby to change his diaper; not even waiting to attend the baby’s funeral, the grief-stricken, guilt-stricken Francis fled, abandoning his family forever. The third occurred in 1930 when Francis—by now a derelict—defended himself against a crazed wino who tried to cut off his feet (for the sake of his shoes) with a meat cleaver. The fourth takes place during the Albany visit that forms the current action of Ironweed.
The story of Francis is balanced by that of Helen, his companion in drink and homelessness during the past nine years. Outwardly, Helen is “a drunken old douchebag” with a tumor-swollen belly and spindly legs who will submit to the sexual fumbling of a fellow derelict in order to sleep in his wheelless wreck of a car; within, she is still a nice Catholic girl, musically inclined, who was well brought up by an adoring father. She is an innocent who can’t be trusted to cross the street on her own, someone whom Francis loves and tries to protect even while he drunkenly reviles her at times with outbursts of pure hatred. The peregrinations of the unsteady couple as they search for shelter on a chilly night (hoping always to avoid the fate of sleeping in the weeds of a vacant lot) form one of the movements of this musically composed novel. Another is based upon the wagon trip that Francis makes with a crusty old junk dealer, a journey that takes him through all the old neighborhoods before depositing him near the home of his long-deserted wife and grown children.
Throughout the novel Kennedy plays with the contrast between sordid event and exalted illusion, between remembered past and threadbare present, between precise description and blunt colloquialism on the one hand and on the other a style so heightened as to become rhapsodic. At times he flirts perilously with Irish sentimentality—and for the most part gets away with it. Here is the account of Helen’s final moments in a fleabag hotel:
And so when crippled Donovan knocks again at eleven o’clock and asks if Helen needs anything, she says no, no thank you, old cripple, I don’t need anything or anybody anymore… And after he goes away from the door she lets go of the brass and thinks of Beethoven, Ode to Joy,
And hears the joyous multitudes advancing,
And feels her legs turning to feathers and sees that her head is floating down to meet them as her body bends under the weight of so much joy,
Sees it floating ever so slowly
As the white bird glides over the water until it comes to rest on the Japanese kimono
That has fallen so quietly,
Onto the grass where the moonlight grows.
Thus quoted in isolation, the passage seems shameless in both its sentimentality and its poetic inflation. But in the context already established of Helen’s deluded self-image, one sees that Kennedy is, so to speak, allowing her one final aria, an aria to cap the sentimental songs she had earlier sung—to imagined applause—in a sleazy skid-row saloon.
Though there is much shrewd observation of both conscious and unconscious motivation, Ironweed was not intended to be read as a psychologically realistic portrayal of alcoholic degradation and its causes. Did or did not Francis, the glorious ballplayer, mean to kill the strikebreaking trolley conductor? At one point he contemplates “the evil autonomy of his hands.” At another he believes himself to be “a creature of unknown and unknowable qualities, a man in whom there would never be an equanimity of both impulsive and premeditated action.” A few sentences later he reaches the “unutterable” conclusion that his guilt is all that he has left: “If I lose it, I have stood for nothing, been nothing, done nothing.” But Kennedy never allows the issue to be closed. What he has written is a kind of fantasia on the strangeness of human destiny, on the mysterious ways in which a life can be transformed and sometimes redeemed. As such, Ironweed seems to me a work of unusual interest, original in its conception, full of energy and color, a splendid addition to the Albany cycle.