— The Collected Breece D’J Pancake Stories, Fragments, Letters, Introduction by Jayne Anne Phillips (Haywire Books, 2020)
A few years ago, I took a day off from work, packed some clothes, and drove from my former home in the DC area to Milton, West Virginia. I had not visited Milton (pop. 2400) before nor its surrounding areas, but I felt that some of the sights during my six-hour road trip were familiar. I had already taken a peek into that world by reading the stories of Breece D’J Pancake, a Milton native who in a dozen short stories — six published in his lifetime and six published posthumously — helped jumpstart, in the words of Pancake biographer Thomas E. Douglass, an Appalachian literary renaissance.
The Milton Public Library was hosting an event in memory of Pancake and his legacy that gathered writers, people who had known the author in his lifetime, and readers like me. Hearing talks about the themes in Pancake’s fiction — the shadow of place that looms over people’s lives, the conflicting impulses of longing to leave and wanting to stay in West Virginia, the stark, yet poetic and finely-honed language — helped me understand at a deeper level the fascination his stories have exerted over so many.
Pancake committed suicide in 1979. He was 26 years old. Four years later, The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake came out, a book that collected most of his fiction and which has stayed in print ever since. Now, the Library of America, the foremost publisher of classic American literature, has released a more comprehensive volume that adds some of Pancake’s juvenilia and letters to the mix. While this latter material is a worthwhile read in its own right, the prime value to the reader continues to be the dozen finished stories, including some that were originally published in The Atlantic — quite the feat for a then young and obscure writer — such as the book’s opener, “Trilobites.”
The story’s title alludes to the small marine invertebrate creatures whose fossils can be found throughout the Appalachians, but it also roots the characters in the land and puts their lives in an ample perspective. Set in Rock Camp, Pancake’s fictionalized Milton, “Trilobites” tells the story of Colly, a young man who just found his father, a war veteran, dead in the grass “after a sliver of metal from his old wound passed to his brain.” Colly is now faced with the daunting prospect of selling the family farm while his former girlfriend, Ginny, who left for Florida after high school, is back in town visiting her family.
Pancake weaves the emotional and geographical landscapes from Colly’s perspective: “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.”
Like “Trilobites,” other stories in the volume focus on apparently small lives that nevertheless resonate far and wide through their melancholy and evocative language. In “In the Dry,” a truck driver visits his foster family after many years of separation and has to face the truth about a car accident in which he was involved. In “A Room Forever,” a nameless tugboat mate spends a brutal New Year’s Eve in a small river town.
Jayne Anne Phillips writes in the volume’s introduction that Breece Pancake’s work “include some of the best short stories written anywhere, at any time.” As bombastic as the claim may sound, and whether the reader is discovering Pancake or revisiting his fiction, it is easy to see how the best of his stories are as enduring as the best written by other American masters of the form such as John Cheever, Lucia Berlin, and Richard Yates.
Born in Texas, raised in Chile, and currently living in Shepherdstown, Gonzalo is a fiction writer with books published in Spain, Italy, and Chile. His stories have appeared in Boulevard, Goliad, and The Texas Review.By Gonzalo Baeza