Breece D'J Pancake

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I took a fiction writing class with this author, when we were both undergrads at UVa. According to the Wikipedians, he "has become a semi-mythical figure of American Literature" whose "vivid, compact style has been compared to that of Ernest Hemingway." Like Hemingway, he "died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound" (although much younger, at age 26). I didn't learn about his unfortunate death or impressive reputation until years later.

Back then he signed his stories "Breece D. Pancake." The Wikipedians say "the unusual middle name 'D'J' originated when The Atlantic Monthly misprinted his middle initials (D.J., for Dexter John) in the byline of 'Trilobites,' a short story the magazine published in 1977." [1] Perversely, Pancake adopted this flub as his writer name; in the Afterword to The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake, John Casey, our teacher and Pancake's biggest advocate, calls the acquiescence a "celebration" of Pancake's first published tale, which "eased his sense of strain -- the strain of trying to get things perfect -- by adopting an oddity committed by a fancy magazine." [2]

I remember Pancake as a (sorry, it must be said) lumpish, brooding, but oddly entitled presence at the table where we sat and critiqued work. His type of fiction didn't interest me much at the time, and none of the stories we read were as good as the ones in this collection. Just achingly honest tales of rural America, without the bleak melodrama that came later. Possibly I missed it; possibly because I was one of those "middle class" students from the Washington DC area that James Alan McPherson, in his Foreword, says Breece, a West Virginia native, had a hard time fitting in with. (McPherson also taught Pancake at UVa.)

Lumpish or no, Pancake clearly had some pull outside the classroom. Casey fawned and fussed over his writing in front of the other students. At the time it seemed a condescending form of sympathy for an outsider who had drifted into the system. McPherson frames Pancake's outsiderdom as a matter of social class; to me it was a matter of the relative (lack of) interest in bucolic-details-as-story-material. It seemed old fashioned, but Casey ate it up.

I also didn't know until I read the Foreword and Afterword to The Stories that he had been workin' the refs in his off hours, confidently marching into his teachers' offices and saying he wanted to study with them. (His exact words to McPherson were "Buddy, I want to work with you." Gag me.) His chutzpah and the quality of the stories he thrust on them got him an amazing amount of special treatment. But they also gave his benefactors perhaps more than they bargained for.

This anecdote from McPherson awakened me to a world of mentor-boundary-crossing I couldn't have even imagined back in the day:

In the winter of 1977 I went to Boston and mentioned the work of several of my students, Breece included, to Phoebe-Lou Adams of The Atlantic. She asked to be sent some of his stories. I encouraged Breece to correspond with her, and very soon afterward several of his stories were purchased by the magazine. The day the letter of acceptance and check arrived, Breece came to my office and invited me to dinner. We went to Tiffany’s, our favorite seafood restaurant. Far from being pleased by his success, he seemed morose and nervous. He said he had wired flowers to his mother that day but had not yet heard from her. He drank a great deal. After dinner he said that he had a gift for me and that I would have to go home with him in order to claim it.
He lived in a small room on an estate just on the outskirts of Charlottesville. It was more a workroom than a house, and his work in progress was neatly laid out along a square of plywood that served as his desk. He went immediately to a closet and opened it. Inside were guns -- rifles, shotguns, handguns -- of every possible kind. He selected a twelve-gauge shotgun from one of the racks and gave it to me. He also gave me the bill of sale for it -- purchased in West Virginia -- and two shells. He then invited me to go squirrel hunting with him. I promised that I would. But since I had never owned a gun or wanted one, I asked a friend who lived on a farm to hold on to it for me.

Pancake gave McPherson a gun; he asked Casey to be his godfather! This was a twenty-something-year-old man. From Casey's Afterword:

Not long before Breece and I got to be friends, his father and his best friend both died. Sometime after that Breece decided to become a Roman Catholic and began taking instruction...
Breece asked me to be his godfather. I told him I was a weak reed, but that I would be honored. This godfather arrangement soon turned upside down. Breece started getting after me about going to mass, going to confession, instructing my daughters. It wasn’t so much out of righteousness as out of gratitude and affection, but he could be blistering. And then penitent.

McPherson also recalls Pancake standing in the corridor of the fiction department shouting over and over "I'm Jimmy Carter and I'm running for President!" -- prompting more paragraphs of contorted, hagiographic justification (akin to Casey's riff on "D'J") -- about the New South and Pancake's place in it.

Pancake appears from the essays to have been bipolar or BPD, yet the teachers catered to him, built him up, hung out with him, at least until McPherson moved to Yale and stopped opening Pancake's mail. (Breece was his bosom buddy till he wasn't.) Regarding his suicide, McPherson quotes a letter from Pancake's mother stating that "God called [Breece] home because he saw too much dishonesty and evil in this world and he couldn’t cope," an explanation that covers a lot of territory.

Pancake's book sat on my shelf for several years; I was motivated to read it, finally, after encountering the fiction of Daniel Woodrell, an Ozarks writer who has been compared to Pancake. I prefer Woodrell, for the simple reason that his prose does not make me crave oblivion. Pancake's writing exudes a primal, all-encompassing pain; it's a freakishly intriguing body of work but not a very fun experience. Woodrell tempers the pain with stoic humor, at least; Pancake is rarely funny.

In Pancake's universe, if there is a mine, it is played out; if there is a field, it is shriveled; if there is a car, it is a wreck. People suffer black lung, cancer, brain damage, "spells." An animal will be slaughtered or a woman called a whore at least once per story. Characters can never quite escape them hills. In Woodrell's world people want to stay in the Ozarks. Some commenters on The Stories find resilience and life-affirmation in Pancake's work. This is surely not the case. The best reason to read it is to understand, to live, the levels of despair one might experience before the trigger is pulled, in a West Virginia that serves as a petri dish for all the toxins of Milton Friedman's America. The exquisite craft of Pancake's old-soul, Hemingway-informed prose makes it possible to go this deep.

Still, I don't like the stories much. They seem half-baked, or adolescent to me, for all their brilliant channeling of greater writers. More symptom than fiction.

1. The "John" was added by Pancake, the Wikipedians state, "after converting to Catholicism in his mid-20s."

2. For a writer whose last name is an oddity, to allow a thoughtless gatekeeper to choose an even odder one as his permanent "brand" seems more like an act of self-dislike than one of "celebration." As Pancake's champion both in life and posthumously, Casey seems to have avoided any darker explanations for his behaviour.

[revised after posting]