WHEN HE DIED four years ago at age 27, a suicide, the young writer Breece Pancake left behind a handful of stories as oddly his own as his name. The best of them appeared, before and after his death, in The Atlantic, whose book-publishing side has now collected a total of 12 stories between elegiac essays by two of his friends and teachers, the writers James Alan McPherson and John Casey. It is a satisfying volume, the world Breece Pancake created sandwiched by evocations of the creator himself. For many readers, these pages will be varnished with sadness for the writer who might have been; for me, the varnish is perhaps a shade darker, because I knew Breece slightly for the last four years of his life. How slightly I never realized until I picked up the bound galleys for this book.
We studied and taught together at the University of Virginia, where the master for young fiction writers was, and is, the short-story writer Peter Taylor. The most important thing Taylor had to teach, both through his work and his conversation, was that a writer must, to be more than a journeyman, have a subject--that is, a world all his own, a world he knows better than anyone else, knows so well in fact that he can extract from it what meaning there is. This was not something Breece needed to learn. The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake demonstrates most clearly that he had a subject: the hills and hollows of his native West Virginia, and the rough, painful lives that are lived there.
By far the best story in the collection is "Trilobites," the first Pancake published. Its theme is loss, and loss is everywhere in the story, pervading the ancient, mountainous landscape like the film of heat and gas that is the sky. In the course of a few hours we follow the protagonist, Colly, as he contemplates the recent death of his father, the defection of his girl friend, Ginny, for college in Florida and the world beyond their small gas-company town, the failure of the family farm since his father's death, and his mother's decision to sell the farm, and herself leave town for a new life in Akron. These personal losses of Colly's are echoed and re-echoed throughout the story. His father's friend, Jim, whom he sees in a caf,e at the beginning of the story, drinks his coffee from one of four cups hanging in the window. The other three cups belonged to men now dead, including Colly's father. Colly and Jim banter together at the counter, and when Colly leaves, he says, jokingly, "You stink so bad the undertaker's following you." Jim must feel the truth of this, but he laughs, and flings back a retort.
Ginny's mother deserted her father just as she deserts Colly. Ran off with a "feisty little I-taliun," and ended up shot to death in a Chicago hotel room. In fact, these desertions by women are part of the general abandonment of the town. "I think," Colly reflects at one point, "of all the people I know who left these hills." This is a familiar theme of course; it is the theme of rural life in this century.
But Pancake sees it as part of a still larger picture. Colly's personal losses are part of the town's losses, which are part of a series of losses stringing back in time, and forward, infinitely. Colly's hobby is collecting fossils, which he thinks of as his "stone animals," and "little stones that lived so long ago." At the opening of the story, Colly looks up at Company Hill, "all sort of worn down and round. A long time ago it was real craggy and stood like an island in the Teays River. It took over a million years to make that smooth little hill, and I've looked all over it for trilobites. I think how it has always been there and always will be, at least for as long as it matters." Even the Teays River is a trickle of what it once had been. And now the ponds where Colly gaffs turtles--"turkles," as he calls them-- are to be filled for subdivisions. "Under all those houses, my turkles will turn to stone," just as the trilobites did so many eons before.
This is a long view, and could be absurdly so, except that it works so beautifully with everything else in the story: the setting, the archaic diction and vocabulary of the characters (an archaic simplicity that could cough up a surname like Pancake, in fact) and, not least, since character is really what fiction is about, that of Colly himself. At one point, Colly tells Ginny, who has returned from college for a visit, about a time he ran away from home as a child. Walking through a meadow, "this shadow passed over me. I honest to God thought it was a pterodactyl. It was a damned airplane. I was so damn mad, I came home." After he and Ginny make an angry and hostile sort of love, and she leaves--forever, as they realize--Colly thinks, "I feel old as hell."
In his afterword, John Casey remarks how Breece himself was in some ways old, although he was chronologically not quite 27 when he died. "I began to feel that not only did he learn things fast, absorb them fast, but he aged them fast." A story like "Trilobites," which contains so much knowledge, which explores its subject so well on so many levels, must have aged him as a writer, must have made him feel that he had used up all he knew.
Two other stories come close to achieving the complex confluence of character, setting, language, theme, history, myth, of "Trilobites": "Hollow" and "In the Dry." Three others, "The Scrapper," "The Honored Dead," and "The Salvation of Me," are good, but not remarkable. Half, then, truly deserve to be collected. Yet even the lesser stories have an interest, a polish, and an individuality. A false and rather sophomoric story like "A Room Forever" has what Casey calls Pancake's "authentic sense, even memory, of ways of being he couldn't have known firsthand":
"The hall and stairwell are all lit up to keep away the whores and stumblebums. The door across the hall opens and a drag queen peeks out, winks at me: 'Happy New Year.' He closes his door quietly, and I cut loose, kick the door, smudge the paint with my gum soles. I hear him in there laughing at me, laughing because I am alone. All the way down the stairs I can hear his laugh. He is right: I need a woman--not just a lousy chip--I need the laying quiet after that a chip never heard of."
It is impossible not to admire, indeed to envy, the writer at work in these stories. And yet there are certain things that recur in them that are repulsive. Women, almost without exception, are like the "chip" above, whores, or if not that, suspected of being whores, or unfaithful in ways that men are not. There is a glorying in guns and killing, in sudden and pointless violence. It is hard to know whether these attitudes are an unavoidable aspect of his subject or part of his sensibility. Finally, in a writer as fine as Breece was, subject and sensibility are probably the same.
The sad circumstances of this book make the two essays about Breece by McPherson and Casey of special interest. It is unusual that these two older men, both accomplished writers, came to know Breece and to value him, especially since, as they both suggest, he was not an easy person to know. Many of us who were the same age as Breece never did get past the difficulties that knowing him presented. It is late to regret this. What I do regret, and what seems almost incredible to me now, is that it has taken me so long to get to know Breece Pancake's fictional world. To have it before us here can only be cause for gratitude.