LEWISBURG, W. VA. -- His brother's goats are happy to see him, but then again they are happy to see almost anybody. Pinckney Benedict strokes their necks, pats them on the nose and addresses them in the curious tone that adults reserve for babies and animals. Benedict loves the goats. Friendly, he says, and the milk is real good for you. "It makes a nice soft cheese, too."
Goat cheese, someone tells him, has been proclaimed the "Food of the '80s" by The New York Times.
"Well, good," he says. "Thank God we're not behind. We get worried we're not chichi enough out here."
They get worried about no such thing. If someone could come up with a reliable chichi alarm, they'd do a brisk business in the Greenbrier Valley.
Benedict heads back down the hill, dog at his heels, toward a fugitive cow that has slipped the pasture fence and stands in the middle of a rutted dirt road. A chunky, cherub-faced young man in work boots, blue jeans and suspenders, he doesn't look like the kind of guy who would set off the chichi alarm. But he is. Since his first collection of short stories, "Town Smokes," was published this summer, the 23-year-old Benedict has enjoyed a vogue that extends beyond strictly literary circles.
Eudora Welty found "Town Smokes" "assured and also venturesome" and felt in Benedict "the presence of a strong talent." The New York Times Book Review plugged the book on its front page and dubbed it "an often heart-stopping literary performance." Television embraced him in the form of producer David Milch, who invited Benedict to Hollywood this summer to work on the upcoming "Beverly Hills Buntz." And all of this was prelude to breathing the pure oxygen of exposure on MTV.
"Apparently this guy comes on and he's their late-night veejay," Benedict says, "and the picture of the cover of the book comes up and he starts off by saying, 'What would you do if a 600-pound hog came jumping out at you?'
"I was roaring. A friend of mine told me the main operative critical word was 'weird.' They wanted everybody to know that this was a 'weird' book."
Weird? Hmmm. Hyperbolic, perhaps. Brooding, certainly. Haunted by death and the harshness of nature. But Benedict aims a bit higher than weird.
In "Town Smokes," readers are introduced to mountain people who endure but do not prevail. Curtis Makepeace sells rotten potatoes to moonshiners. Uncle Hunter whittles and slugs bourbon to allay a lifetime's grief. Torrey contemplates her return to go-go dancing. Guns go off.
Many of the stories deal with young men coming of age in a world where maturity means little more than learning to admit defeat. The characters are beset by restive animals and hostile elements. "Most times it's all a man has that he can take what he takes standen up," one of them says.
"I don't like to make presumptions about whatever it is that keeps my world from being that dark," says Benedict, who is currently finishing his master's degree in the writers' workshop at the University of Iowa. "But I guess I have an idea that whatever it is is pretty slim. Whatever it is that separates it, it is hard for me to define and because I can't define it, it scares me because it could go away without my ever knowing."
Actually, the landscape of his life is not much like the landscape of his fiction. The home where Benedict lives each summer with his parents is gracious and tree-shaded, all dark wood in the cavernous living room and light linoleum in the airy kitchen. The upstairs hallway darts and rambles.
What separates Benedict's life from those of his desperate characters would appear to be pretty substantial: nearly 700 acres of land, roughly 100 head of dairy cattle and the advantages of extensive education. Pinckney's father Cleve is a former one-term Republican congressman who was Sen. Robert Byrd's latest opponent. He and the youngest of his three children are both Princeton graduates. Pinckney, whose imagination was shaped by his youth on the farm, left home at 13 to attend a private school in Pennsylvania.
By then, he says, he was a marked boy: "Just on a farm, stuff dies. You are around a couple hundred various kinds of animals and something is dead all the time. Like we had chickens. I had a small flock and it was really horrible because we had so many rat problems and I remember you'd go out and see which one of them was dead today. They used to sit on this wire and the rats would chew their toes. So you adjust to that and I guess that's what provides that kind of world view."
At Princeton, under the guidance of Joyce Carol Oates, Benedict began to craft these stark childhood impressions into short stories. "It was immediately apparent to other students and to me that Pinckney stood out," Oates says. "He was just on a different level. He had a precocious sense of what he wanted to write about and he's more mature emotionally."
On the first day of class, after Benedict had taken his turn telling who he was and where he was from, Oates told him that he had to read the stories of Breece D'J Pancake.
Pancake, a native of Milton, W. Va., committed suicide in 1979 at the age of 27. A volume of his stories was published posthumously. Writing in The New York Times Book Review, Oates made his reputation with this sentence: "A young writer of such extraordinary gifts that one is tempted to compare his debut to Hemingway's."
For Benedict, the book was both inspiration and affirmation, not only of the way he wrote, but of the people he wrote about. "It was galvanizing," he says. "It was like, 'My God, you really can do this.' " The influences of Pancake's terse diction, troubled landscape and desperate characters are evident in Benedict's work.
"It is really strange because I would like to say, 'Well, I feel like I know the guy,' even though I never met him," Benedict says. "I have read his book a number of times. I draw on that very heavily. And on what I think he must have felt. But if I had met him, there is every possibility that we wouldn't have hit it off or that we would have been in whatever kind of competition."
Some critics have argued that the work of Pancake and Benedict along with Jayne Anne Phillips of West Virginia and Bobbie Ann Mason of Kentucky comprises a "literature of the border states."
Benedict finds the idea attractive. "I think there is a disaffection from both the South and the North," he says. "I think there is a real feeling about not being a part of either of those cultures."
But writer James Alan McPherson, who was a friend of Pancake's, sees forces other than geography shaping these writers' work. "It is a process of disengagement," he says. "Once you remove yourself from the flow of tradition you're forced to turn in on yourself to reconnect. I know Breece was driven. He was always going back over those mountains and he was always upset because he couldn't maintain that continuity."
Benedict, on the other hand, claims that he can go home again. "I have always felt so strongly rooted here," he says. "If it is a foot in both cultures I have never felt particularly strongly the draw of the other culture. I always felt like I was from here and was going to come back here. There's never been any problem identifying which direction home was."
While Benedict keeps going home, home keeps changing. In 1967 the state appropriated land from the family's farm and two others to build a county airport. The runway is about a mile from the Benedicts' home and traffic is relatively light, but still, there are warning lights on several of the silos. There's also a superhighway running through the other end of town that has brought with it a new wave of settlement. Benedict is particularly upset by a subdivision called Echols Acres.
"I can actually remember when it was really empty," he says. "They put in a road and when we came back from church, we used to beg our parents to drive us around; it was horseshoe-shaped and it was just kind of cool because it was this road that really went sort of nowhere and at the end of it, it was scenic. There were a lot of rocks and it just really was nice. Of course now the whole thing is just filled with ranch houses."
The changing landscape as well as the mobility of young writers generates what McPherson calls "a literature of displacement that permeates the whole society."
"There's a sense that something is missing that was there before," he says. "I think it is a lack of moral certainty."
Benedict has more opportunity than most to return to the land of his certainties. It is just a matter of taking the right turn off the state highway onto Benedict Lane. The farm is much as it has always been. Except for the airport.
"The thing I like is that this place isn't a movie set," he says. "It's a working farm. You could probably smell Dad when you first came in. He's rather pungent before he gets in the shower."
A writer's imagination at loose in his own family can be as lethal as the tree that fells the narrator's father in the title story of the "Town Smokes" collection.
In fact, fathers fare rather badly throughout the book. "There is something so powerful about your role model failing that is so appealing, and obviously it is everywhere in literature," Benedict says. "There's such an automatic reaction because everybody can think of their dad. They remember the day their dad cried or they realized he's a person and he's the same size as other men and that kind of thing."
Cleve Benedict does not take these portrayals to heart. It has taken some time, but father has gradually come to understand son's craft.
"I think Dad has just recently become convinced that this is something that adult people actually do for a living," Benedict says. "He's a very straightforward person and this is kind of an oblique way of making your living. Kind of taking your life experience to a certain extent, and taking lies you've made up to a certain extent, and binding them together in some mystical way that has to appeal to other people enough that they are going to part with some money to listen to you tell lies. That's very strange for a person who grew up farming, because farming is very straightforward."
Some of the straightforwardness is in the son, who was not much impressed with his trip to Hollywood. Benedict was included in a group of writing students from around the country who were flown to Los Angeles for what amounted to a television writing internship.
"It's so incredibly different that you almost wonder why they bring fiction writers out there," he says. "The whole process is so incredibly collaborative. You have to say, 'This is what I want to write,' and they have to say that's all right. Which, I don't see how it ever happens.
"If I'd said, well, I'm gonna do a story about this guy, that there is this dog underneath his trailer. I mean I just don't think I could ever have talked anybody into it. What you have to do is sit down and do it and then say, 'See, I can do it.' "
"Town Smokes" proves that Pinckney Benedict can do it. Now he is about the arduous task of following one success with another.
"I would hate to think of it that way," he says. "That's a path that quickly leads to impotence and madness. You could just think, 'Oh, Eudora Welty liked this one. What will I do for an encore?' "
He has the beginnings of a novel, a picaresque tale of a young man on a motorcycle loose in the hills of West Virginia. "I hope it turns out, but really that's just the very bare beginning of it, so we'll see," he says. "It could change to a Winnebago by the end."
The only thing he is certain of is that he is unlikely to run out of material. There is, for instance, a murder trial that unfolded recently in The Charleston Gazette.
"There had been a fight in a place outside a tavern in this vacant lot, they called it 'the ape yard,' was the name of it, and this guy, a man, had been killed. An old man. And the witnesses kept calling him 'the meanest old man in West Virginia.' "
The old man was shot during a fight by a younger man whose defense was that the old man had grabbed his hand and pulled the trigger. Three times.
"I always thought that would make sense if he shot himself once," Benedict says, "but you wonder, after the first time, why the old man kept pulling the trigger. I've always wanted to use that. 'The ape yard,' you know. And there's stuff like that all the time."