To get there, you take I-64 and blur by towns named Nitro and Hurricane. Off to the side are giant generator cones spewing fumes into a yellow sky. Pumps suck at ancient gas fields in the earth: Union Carbide, not coal, is king in this corner of West Virginia, which is down below Charleston, where the Mud River winds and the fields are green with corn and cane.
"Well, Lordy, look what you brought," says the woman in the doorway, taking up you and your flowers in nearly the same embrace. She is tall, in flat shoes, and there is a pressed handkerchief in her dress pocket. From the kitchen comes an aroma of something Sunday simmering in a pot. On the phone Helen Pancake had said, "You'll come for lunch, of course. That's the way we do." She has the same linear features and big bones you remember from photographs of her son.
Helen Pancake is the mother of Breece D'J Pancake, a gifted writer who killed himself five years ago, on Palm Sunday, just at the moment of his probable fame. He was 26. He died on the outskirts of Charlottesville, a few hours after he had attended mass. That is one of the mysteries. "If I weren't a good Catholic, I'd consider getting a divorce from life," he had put in a letter to a friend.
When they found him that April evening, he was sitting upright in a folding chair under a fruit tree, the weapon cradled against his right arm. Part of his brains were on a wall behind him. At his feet spread a moon of blood.
"I love you, mother," he had said three times the night before on the telephone. Taped to the dash of his beat-up car was a grocery list. On his typewriter lay two stamped letters.
He had written some beautiful short stories in a creative writing program and had sold several to The Atlantic. He was working on a novel. He had a girlfriend. From all the naked eye could detect, he had every reason not to die. But the naked eye is often faulty.
Now the legend of Breece D'J Pancake glimmers and spreads like fox fire. Someone wants to make a film. Someone at Princeton has done a thesis. Someone hopes to stage a play, interweaving the work with the life. A myth, not unlike James Dean's or Sylvia Plath's, seeks to find in death what could not be had fully in life. You might cynically call it the romance of suicide, and let it go at that, but you might change your mind after you read some of his stories.
There are only 12. Nearly all are remarkable, the more so when you consider how young their author was. A few are overstraining and bear the marks of a talent not yet fully developed, but the best of them, in the words of one of his teachers at the University of Virginia, are "as hard and brilliantly worn as train rails." They are laconic and linear stories, full of regional vernacular, as gritty as Appalachia itself and seemingly artless. This is how one of them opens:
I open the truck's door, step onto the brick side street. I look at Company Hill again, 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. The air is smoky with summertime. A bunch of starlings swim over me. I was born in this country and I have never very much wanted to leave. I remember Pop's dead eyes looking at me.
Always, they are stories about lives longing for redemption -- from pride and lust and greed, from the terrible beauties and moral darkness of a blasted land. Appalachia has long suffered at the hands of its beauty, and Breece Pancake got that part down perfectly. His best story is "Trilobites," the one that has a decent chance of surviving once all the hype is scraped away.
Twenty-one months ago Joyce Carol Oates, on the front page of The New York Times Book Review, compared Pancake's posthumous debut with Ernest Hemingway's. She was reviewing "The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake," and she thought she could see reasons for the author's death in his work: "The stories -- tense, elegiac, remorseless in their insistence on the past's dominion over the present -- argue for a sensibility so finely honed, so vulnerable to the inexorable passage of time, that it is likely death appeared as a solace."
Other critics mentioned him in the same breath with Faulkner, Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Flannery O'Connor.
Earlier this year the paperback edition of Pancake's work came out. It bears a haunting picture of two weatherbeaten barns by the side of a road, shadowed by rounded mountains. On the back of the book is a slightly blurred photograph of the author, staring downward, as if into his pain.
The visitor has brought roses, perhaps out of some misguided notion about a widowed mother's strength. Helen Pancake has worked hard and lost a lot and bears up alone now. Before the day is out she will cry perhaps 30 times, and the worst will come when she stands over her son's stone at the cemetery. Her husband's is there, too. He died four years before Breece. Breece set his father's stone, mixing the mortar himself.
She is a strong enough woman to cry easily and to say, flat out, "You'll never know how badly bent I was. But I believe God puts all things on us, not just the bad. And He never would have put this on me if He didn't think I could carry it. I'm sure some people around here think I must be a freak or crazy. They say, 'What kind of woman would it be whose son kills himself?' But that talk doesn't bother me. It's just like someone around here said Breece's stories were 'hogwash.' Hogwash, ha. To hogwashers, maybe."
On the phone she had said softly, "Yes, if you want to come, it will be all right. I could talk to you a little about Breece's life. I can talk okay in private. The governor's wife, Sharon Rockefeller, asked me to come to the state capitol in Charleston to give a paper on my son, but I told her I am unable to do that. I could not do something public. I think Breece's ghost would override me. Sharon has had tragedy in her own family, and so she understood."
There are painted dinner plates hung on the wall and a brocade sofa in the living room. By the stereo is a straw basket with 102 book reviews and stories in it. "Well, really 100, but I count the ads in People and Time," she says.
Breece D'J Pancake, whose name seemed as mysterious as his gift, knew about guns almost as well as he knew about words, and the weapon he chose from his closet to kill himself was a .30-.30 over a .20-gauge shotgun. It is commonly called an "over-under," and this particular combination was powerful enough to drop a deer at 75 yards. The wild colonial boy had time to detonate only one barrel.
In Charlottesville earlier this fall, John Casey, one of Pancake's writing teachers and a man who had loved him deeply, said, "If I could have eaten some of it off the wall that night, I would have." Casey has written the elegant afterword to the collected stories, and in it he says he has experienced the sudden sensation of powder-burn in his nostrils, the metallic taste of a cold blue muzzle in his mouth. The feeling has come upon him late at night, or as he sits in the bathtub, and it seems to suck at his whole body with a terrible thrill: So that's what it felt like to have the gun in his mouth.
The savage god of sympathetic response.
Little seems to add up in this story, but this much can be said:
Approximately 30 minutes before a Savage Arms hunting gun, serial number B366615, went off in a Blue Ridge night, Pancake had been found trespassing in someone's cottage. The cottage was on the grounds of a Charlottesville estate, where the writer himself lived in a sparse rented room. The cottage he entered without permission was across the yard from his own room. A woman came home with a sack of groceries in her arm. She unlatched the door and saw a wild-looking man sitting on a chair in semidarkness. It is said she dropped the groceries and screamed, though this has never been substantiated. The man took off, though not before he had said something to this effect: "Don't worry, I'm not going to harm you."
What Pancake was doing in the cottage has never satisfactorily been explained. On the sheriff's report, which has been sitting all this while deep in a drawer in the Albemarle County building in Charlottesville, there is this sentence: "The complainant stated that Mr. Pancake cornered her and explained that he had a drinking problem and had a tendency to wander around."
To this day, his mother wants to believe her son was sleepwalking, and maybe in fact he was. "I think he was startled, he was frightened, he was confused, he was pushed, he was . . . sick," she says.
There are other puzzling details, but let them hold. What is important here is appreciating what her son accomplished in life, not theorizing about what made him go to death. And still, one longs to know something more about what his life was like, where he came from, how he gathered inside him so quickly such an immense gift . . .
Hollis sat by his window all night, staring at his ghost in glass, looking for some way out of the tomb Jake had built for him. Now he could see the first blue blur of morning growing behind bare tree branches, and beyond them the shadows of the farm. The work was done: silos stood full of corn, hay bales rose to the barn's roof, and the slaughter stock had gone to market; it was work done for figures in a bank, for debts, and now corn stubble leaned in the fields among stacks of fodder laced with frost.
Sam Harshbarger, an old family friend, is here today. He claims to have invited himself, but maybe the truth converges at the middle: Helen Pancake needed someone she could trust to help stay the pain of questions. Sam's people go all the way back to the start of the county. He is another Milton son made good, a longtime West Virginia Supreme Court justice voted out. "Too liberal," he says. He wears a khaki suit and a pinstripe button-down shirt.
The house is right on U.S. 60, a road that used to carry West Virginians out West. Now they go hard for escape on the interstate, which is up above the town, ribbed out of rock. "We thought 60 was the biggest road in the world when it was a two-lane," Sam says.
"We've been 30 years in this house," says Helen Pancake. "It's the only home Breece knew." She folds her arms across her breast. Blue veins ride up the back of her hands. "Sam and Breece's father were great friends. Breece's daddy's name was Clarence, but they called him Bud. His other name was Whicker."
"Bud died too soon," Sam says, shaking his head.
"Breece's father's illness put a lot of bitterness in him," Helen Pancake says. "Bud had MS. It was a terrible wasting. Breece thought his father had been cheated. You see, he had worked so hard at Union Carbide, waiting for his early retirement at 55. We were going to sell out and go to Florida. And at 55, he was flat of his back. He went from a walker to a wheelchair to his bed. He was 35 years a shipping clerk. He told Breece once, 'Son, don't ever go in the front gate of a factory. They'll have you.' "
The death this woman has known: A nephew committed suicide before Breece. One of her brothers died at 21 on a motorcycle coming back from the races in Ohio. Ten days after Breece's father died in 1975, Breece's best friend was beheaded in an automobile accident. She has buried her parents in succession. "More than that, too," she says.
She is asked about her son's unusual name.
"It's pretty unusual, all right. We're not sure, but we think Pancake is the English translation of the old German word for pancake. I can never pronounce that word, but I've got it written down in the other room if you want it. The D'J is a little harder to explain. You see, his middle name was Dexter, even though he told some people it was David, and John is the name he took when he entered the Catholic church. The way I got it was that when his first galleys came back from The Atlantic, a typesetter had put it down as D'J. And Breece said, 'Fine, let it stand.' God love his heart."
His teacher at U-Va., John Casey, has speculated that Breece wanted to leave a little clue of imperfection, the way Indians will deliberately make a wrong stitch in an otherwise perfect blanket. He had worked and worked on the stories; let the imperfection show somewhere else. He was fond of clues.
"I'll tell you this," his mother says. "I never knew he was absorbing so much. He knew, for instance, a locust fence post was the hardest post you can get. His father and grandfather taught him that. He always loved stories. When he was little, he'd crawl up on anybody's knee. Why, we had to carpet his room upstairs, because he'd be up there shuffling his feet on the floor while he was working on that little typewriter of his. We've still got it, but I've moved his things to the front bedroom. I can look at them in there. I couldn't look at them if they were in his room."
Was she ever offended by the earthiness of his writing?
"Shoot, no. I've read filthy stories. His weren't like that. Oh, some of them could be pretty harsh. I said to him one time, after I read 'Trilobites,' 'Son, that scene in the depot. You must have raped that girl.' And he said, 'Not really, mother.' And that was about the end of it. See, around here you kind of grow up hearing about rape. He just put it in."
"Rough wooing," says Sam.
Sometimes facts can be a balm, if not a cure. People who knew Pancake well talk about how strangely old he seemed at the end of his life. His hair was falling out, he was stooped, his gait had changed. It was as if his sense of time relied on a different clock. Other people speak of how he had begun giving his possessions away, the way old Indians were once said to give their things away before they went out on the plains to die. But he had always been generous, and so no one recognized a clue in this.
The more you look, the more clues you find. One summer he was working on a construction job in Culpeper, Va. He came on a piece of an insurance company's stationery with this legend on the letterhead: "Where will you be in 10 years?" Pancake wrote to his parents on that piece of paper, drawing an arrow up to the question. Beneath the arrow he wrote: "Pushing up daisies."
On the second page of "Trilobites," which is the opening story in his collection, there is this sentence: "I think of how long it'll be before I croak."
In a poem he wrote: "But there is so little time left. So little time."
And then there is his fascination with Hemingway. Critics have acknowledged the literary debt, but there are other connections, too. Hemingway was a convert to Catholicism. Hemingway killed himself with a shotgun.
Breece Pancake named his cat Papa Hemingway.
The night before he shot himself, he and his girlfriend, Emily, went to see "The Deer Hunter." Then he did some drinking. Emily Miller, who was a doctoral candidate at U-Va. when she knew Breece, has moved on now and lapsed in her communication with Helen Pancake. People say she wants to put the Breece part of her life behind her.
The sky has a film. Its heat burns through the salt on my skin, draws it tight.
And his mother had no hints about what was coming?
"No!" The voice is incredulous, angry.
But an instant later she says, "Well, yes. He went to Mexico one school break and saw prostitution. Fathers were selling their daughters. He came back and said there was just no point to living. He wrote a long, outraged letter to us. He said, 'You all reared me too well.' Maybe he meant we should have told him such things existed in the world."
In the next breath: "He had $1,000 in the bank when he died. And no clothes to speak of."
In the breath after that: "He was always a loner. I think he felt inferior sometimes at Charlottesville. He said to me, 'Mother, I'm not going to go Ivy League.' "
Then: "I know he loved me. He wouldn't have put me through this. That's why he couldn't have done it in his right mind. My daughter, Doni, who used to sleepwalk all the time, got up in the middle of the night once and washed three sweaters."
Doni Pancake, who now lives in Santa Fe, N.M., broke the news to her mother. A policeman had come to the door about midnight. Helen had been sick and taking medicine. Doni went downstairs while Helen dozed. The next thing she knew, her daughter was sitting on the edge of her bed saying, "Breece is dead, mama." "But he can't be," she said. "He's such a good boy."
The word got out on the CB radios, and the town poured in. There was no more sleeping that night. It was several months before Milton knew the truth: He had died by his own hand.
Has the town read its native son?
"No," his mother says.
"Boy's gone," says Sam. "We tend to bury the dead. Most of them grew up with the boy. Didn't see anything exceptional."
Helen Pancake's son had written an odd sentence once: "I see myself scattered, every cell miles from the others."
"He called me one night and said, 'Mom, would it hurt your feelings if I became a Catholic?' I said, 'No, sweetheart.' He said, 'Well, I had a dream last night that daddy kissed me on the cheek and said it was okay.' "
She can't quite finish.
I like to hold little stones that lived so long ago.
Late in the day she takes you up a hollow. "I want you to see some of my son's countryside," she says. The hollow she has picked is a blue crevice, a slit between two hills that a billion years ago were probably mountains as craggy as the Rockies.
As she is getting into her car, her dress flaps back. She covers her hose demurely but handles the wheel like a truck driver.
Making talk: "I thought they'd never get him over here. A man from a funeral home in town went over to Charlottesville with a hearse and got stranded in a snowstorm. I think it was three days before my son got home. Breece was so conscious about anyone putting out for him."
Then: "He was somewhere between fear and frustration, and his mind just snapped."
The rutted road ends in front of a raw-board shack. "Let's get out and walk," she says.
Little mare tails of smoke curl from the falling-down chimney. On the porch, a girl of about 12 is playing with a girl of about 6. The younger child is barefoot and in a woman's dress. She looks nearly bald, and has the eyes of a moon creature. She is neither smiling nor crying.
"Isn't it awfully beautiful up here?" Helen Pancake says. And it is. St. Paul called it the mysteries of iniquity.