Happy Breece D’J Pancake Day

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Today is Shrove Tuesday or Fat Tuesday or Mardi Gras—or Pancake Day if you like. Besides his unusual last name, there is basically no connection between this pre-Lenten day and the West Virginian writer Breece D’J Pancake. But whatever. Pancake remains woefully under-read—so any occasion for notice, yes?

Breece Pancake’s stories are compact, sad, and beautiful. Haunting is a fair word—these tales stick with you. Pancake’s evocation of place and mood are so strong that it’s often a relief to leave the little world he’s painted for the reader. (Does that sound like a negative criticism? ‘Twas not meant to be).

There’s not much Pancake to read—just one collection of short stories, posthumously published. Pancake shot himself in the head a few months before his 27th birthday. In his afterword to The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake, John Casey points out that Pancake had not yet achieved his full vision of his writing (he also explains the unusual punctuation in the author’s name):

When he sold his first story to The Atlantic he scarcely took a breath. (He did do one thing by way of celebration. The galley proofs came back with the middle initials of his name set up oddly: Breece D’J Pancake. He said fine, let it stay that way. It made him laugh, and, I think, it eased his sense of strain—the strain of trying to get things perfect—to adopt an oddity committed by a fancy magazine.) He was glad, but the rhythm of his work didn’t let him glory or even bask. He had expected a great deal from his work, and I think he began to feel its power, but he also felt he was still far from what he wanted.

Obviously, we can lament that we don’t get to read what Pancake might have written—or we can read what he gave us and be grateful. There’s “Hollow”“The Honored Dead,” and “In the Dry”—go ahead, those links are for full-text stories. Don’t be afraid to click.

Pancake’s most well-known story might be “Trilobites” — here are the first few paragraphs:

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, 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. They were real dry, and that took something out of me. I shut the door, head for the café.

 

I see a concrete patch in the street. It’s shaped like Florida, and I recollect what I wrote in Ginny’s yearbook: “We will live on mangoes and love.” And she up and left without me—two years she’s been down there without me. She sends me postcards with alligator wrestlers and flamingos on the front. She never asks me any questions. I feel like a real fool for what I wrote, and go into the café.

 

The place is empty, and I rest in the cooled air. Tinker Reilly’s little sister pours my coffee. She has good hips. They are kind of like Ginny’s and they slope nice curves to her legs. Hips and legs like that climb steps into airplanes. She goes to the counter end and scoffs down the rest of her sundae. I smile at her, but she’s jailbait. Jailbait and black snakes are two things “Won’t touch with a window pole. One time I used an old black snake for a bullwhip, snapped the sucker’s head off, and Pop beat hell out of me with it. I think how Pop could make me pretty mad sometimes. I grin.

Why isn’t the story in my Norton Anthology of American Literature?

Do you want more than those paragraphs? Here’s Joyce Carol Oates on Pancake, from her 1983 NYT review of the collection:

The most powerful of the stories – ”Trilobites,” ”Hollow,” ”Fox Hunters,” ”The Scrapper,” ”In the Dry” – are as compactly and tightly written as prose poems and should be read (and reread) with extreme care. The author’s method is to create an atmosphere of extreme tension in his readers as well as in his protagonists. The stories’ opening paragraphs often announce in embryo what will follow, so that the narrative is thematically complete before, in a sense, it begins, and one feels the inexorable bars of circumstance closing about the characters. And the writing, lean, taut, pared back, near-flawless in its uninflected cadences, is perfectly suited to its content.

Over three decades after that review, there’s still a sense that Pancake hasn’t quite gotten his due. Here’s Jon Michaud, writing almost exactly a year ago in The New Yorker:

…Pancake deserves to be more than a writer’s writer. In his stories, objects are constantly being unearthed: fossils and coal from the earth, skeletons and arrowheads from Indian burial grounds. “The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake” is a sharp, flinty object, an arrowhead left behind by a talented and tragic young author. It would be easy to allow his one collection of stories to be buried under the landslide of books published every year. But it’s worth doing a little excavating to dig it up. The past few years have seen late-in-the-day and posthumous revivals of interest in writers such as Renata Adler, Elena Ferrante, and John Williams. Get out your pickaxes. It’s high time for a Pancake revival.

I agree.

An article on cemeteries, and other ideas from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Note-Books

The spells of witches have the power of producing meats and viands that have the appearance of a sumptuous feast, which the Devil furnishes: But a Divine Providence seldom permits the meat to be good, but it has generally some bad taste or smell,–mostly wants salt,–and the feast is often without bread.

 

An article on cemeteries, with fantastic ideas of monuments; for instance, a sundial;–a large, wide carved stone chair, with some such motto as “Rest and Think,” and others, facetious or serious.

 

“Mamma, I see a part of your smile,”–a child to her mother, whose mouth was partly covered by her hand.

 

“The syrup of my bosom,”–an improvisation of a little girl, addressed to an imaginary child.

 

“The wind-turn,” “the lightning-catch,” a child’s phrases for weathercock and lightning-rod.

 

“Where’s the man-mountain of these Liliputs?” cried a little boy, as he looked at a small engraving of the Greeks getting into the wooden horse.

 

When the sun shines brightly on the new snow, we discover ranges of hills, miles away towards the south, which we have never seen before.

 

To have the North Pole for a fishing-pole, and the Equinoctial Line for a fishing-line.

From Nathaniel Hawthorne’s American Note-Books.

Philip K. Dick — Kent Bellows

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“I know of two kinds of writers” — Jorge Luis Borges

I know of two kinds of writers: those whose central preoccupation is a verbal technique, and those for whom it is human acts and passions. The former tend to be dismissed as “Byzantine” or praised as “pure artists.” The latter, more fortunately, receive the laudatory epithets “profound,” “human,” or “profoundly human,” and the flattering vituperative “savage.” The former is Swinburne or Mallarme; the latter, Celine or Theodore Dreiser. Certain exceptional cases display the virtues and joys of both categories. Victor Hugo remarked that Shakespeare contained Gongora; we might also observe that he contained Dostoevsky…Among the great novelists, Joseph Conrad was perhaps the last who was interested both in the techniques of the novel and in the fates and personalities of his characters. The last that is until the tremendous appearance of Faulkner.

From Borges’ 1937 review of William Faulkner’s Absalom! Absalom!. Originally published in the Argentine magazine El Hogar, part of Borges’ “The Literary Life” column. Republished in Selected Non-Fictions.

Read Roberto Bolaño’s short story “William Burns”

Untitled (Two Dogs Fighting), Bill Traylor

I could no longer hold out on reading Roberto Bolaño’s collection The Return. I’ve been saving the book for two years now, but reading Chris Andrews’s new study Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction: An Expanding Universe prompted me to dive in the other night. (I also maybe abandoned Michel Houellebecq’s The Possibility of an Island, which nags at me like a duty, a chore, and not a joy). 

I had, of course, read a few of the stories collected in The Return over the years (and shared them on this site); they were published by The New Yorker, including one of my favorites, “William Burns,” (translated, like all the stories in The Return, by Andrews. 

“William Burns” is one of Bolaño’s rare stories set in the U.S. It’s about a “laid-back guy who never lost his cool,” a private investigator hired to protect two women who believe they are being stalked by a killer. The story is suffused with sinister malice that burns into fated violence, made all the more ominous by the Bolaño’s typically atypical moments of banality. (The story reads almost as Bolaño’s riff on Raymond Carver). 

Anyway, a favorite passage; read the whole thing here:

If I were a dog, I thought resentfully, these women would show me a bit more consideration. Later, after I realized that none of us were feeling sleepy, they started talking about children, and their voices made my heart recoil. I have seen terrible, evil things, sights to make a hard man flinch, but, listening to the women that night, my heart recoiled so violently it almost disappeared. I tried to butt in, I tried to find out if they were recalling scenes from childhood or talking about real children in the present, but I couldn’t. My throat felt as if it were packed with bandages and cotton swabs.

Charles Bukowski on Individuality

Ten Story Ideas from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Notebooks

Unusual death—man pierced by his own belt buckle.

Boobs Bones Mistaken for John The Baptist

Story: A man who wanted an elephant, or some such one of the wisest of beasts who could not talk. Then began to try to teach him to talk.

The Dancer Who Found She Could Fly

Words

A famous writer fakes his own death but things make him come back.
Or else he can’t.

G. men as Samurai class.

Piggy Back Voyage

Girl whose ear is so sensitive she can hear radio. Man gets her out of insane asylum to use her.

Book: It might have been me. My old idea of half truth half lie, including all notes and everything. Shoot the works.

From F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Notebooks.

RIP Daniel Keyes

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RIP Daniel Keyes, 1927-2014.

Keyes is best known for Flowers for Algernon, which you may have (like me) read in middle school.

Portrait of Edgar Allan Poe — Henri Matisse

“Literature is a struggle over the nature of reality” (Dmitry Samarov’s Portrait of Richard Wright)

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Check out more of Dmitry Samarov’s greeting cards for the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame.

Watch The Lives of Brian, A Documentary About Flann O’Brien

Portrait of Walt Whitman — Thomas Wilmer Dewing

RIP Maya Angelou

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RIP Maya Angelou, 1928-2014

In my time as a teacher, I’ve seen Maya Angelou’s stories and poems—and in particular her memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings—command the attention of students who had previously complained that they hated reading. I’ve seen my classroom library looted of her works; I’ve seen tattered copies of her books passed from hand to hand; I’ve had students ask for More please, more of this, more like this. Angelou’s writing has served as a bridge to life-long reading habits for many young people, and I imagine it will into the future. RIP.

Umberto Eco — Rudcef

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Bruno Jasieński’s The Legs of Izolda Morgan (Book Acquired, 5.01.2014)

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The recent publication of Bruno Jasieński’s The Legs of Izolda Morgan offers another strong argument that Twisted Spoon Press is publishing some of the most fascinating—and most beautiful—books available today. Clothbound and handsomely printed, Izolda Morgan collects several of Jasieński’s futurist manifestos, an essay, stories, and satires.

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Publisher’s blurb:

Considered the enfant terrible of the Polish avant-garde, lauded by critics and scorned by the public, Bruno Jasieński suddenly declared the end of Futurism in Poland soon after his short “novel” The Legs of Izolda Morgan appeared in 1923. An extraordinary example of Futurist prose, this fantastic tale cautions against the machine supplanting the human while the human body is disaggregated into fetishized constituent parts. As central to Jasieński’s oeuvre, the text is situated here between two seminal manifestoes and the important essay “Polish Futurism,” which signaled the movement’s end in the context of its confused reception in Poland, the towering influence of Mayakovsky, and what set it apart from the futurisms of Italy and Russia. The condensed story “Keys” displays Jasieński’s turn toward satire to lambaste the hypocrisies pervasive in powerful institutions, and this is further developed in the two longer grotesques from his time in the Soviet Union in the 1930s. Translated into English from the Russian for the first time, these two late stories expose the nefarious absurdity of racial persecution and warmongering and the lengths social and political structures will go to underpin them.

 

 

A manifesto:

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Katherine Anne Porter and Eudora Welty at Yaddo in 1941

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RIP Gabriel García Márquez

RIP Gabriel García Márquez, 1927-2014

Gabo the Giant is dead.

Long live the Giant.

“The Anarchist: His Dog” — Susan Glaspell

“The Anarchist: His Dog”

by Susan Glaspell

Stubby had a route, and that was how he happened to get a dog. For the benefit of those who have never carried papers it should be thrown in that having a route means getting up just when there is really some fun in sleeping, lining up at the Leader office—maybe having a scrap with the fellow who says you took his place in the line—getting your papers all damp from the press and starting for the outskirts of the city. Then you double up the paper in the way that will cause all possible difficulty in undoubling and hurl it with what force you have against the front door. It is good to have a route, for you at least earn your salt, so your father can’t say that any more. If he does, you know it isn’t so.

When you have a route, you whistle. All the fellows whistle. They may not feel like it, but it is the custom—as could be sworn to by many sleepy citizens. And as time goes on you succeed in acquiring the easy manner of a brigand.

Stubby was little and everything about him seemed sawed off just a second too soon,—his nose, his fingers, and most of all, his hair. His head was a faithful replica of a chestnut burr. His hair did not lie down and take things easy. It stood up—and out!—gentle ladies couldn’t possibly have let their hands sink into it—as we are told they do—for the hands just wouldn’t sink. They’d have to float.

And alas, gentle ladies didn’t particularly want their hands to sink into it. There was not that about Stubby’s short person to cause the hands of gentle ladies to move instinctively to his head. Stubby bristled. That is, he appeared to bristle. Inwardly, Stubby yearned, though he would have swung into his very best brigand manner on the spot were you to suggest so offensive a thing. Just to look at Stubby you’d never in a thousand years guess what a funny feeling he had sometimes when he got to the top of the hill where his route began and could see a long way down the river and the town curled in on the other side. Sometimes when the morning sun was shining through a mist—making things awful queer—some of the mist got into Stubby’s squinty little eyes. After the mist behaved that way he always whistled so rakishly and threw his papers with such abandonment that people turned over in their beds and muttered things about having that little heathen of a paper boy shot. Continue reading

“The Coat” — Flannery O’Connor

“The Coat”

by Flannery O’Connor

Rosa found him rolled over in the mud down by the gully. She started. The wash basket fell off her head and six white shirts-washed, pressed, and folded-flapped face-down in the mud. One of them was in reach of his hand, a rigid, immobile hand, strangely white against the soft red clay it lay in. She felt like sinking into the clay herself. It had taken her all afternoon to iron them shirts. She picked them up except the one that almost touched him. She fished that up with a stick and drop ped it into the basket. Then she looked at him again. He seemed almost to have been pressed down in the clay, his thin body and outstretched arms forming a weird white cross in relief on the red. Light-colored trousers clung to his wet body and Rosa notic ed that a thin coating of ice had begun to form around his arms and back.

He had on no coat.

“Whoever killed him ain’t lef’ nothin’ for nobody else,” she muttered. “Done took the coat offen his back. These niggers ’round here ain’t got no sense.” Allus got caught in some devilment an’ got theysevs in the ‘lectric chair. ‘Thout gittin’ nothin’ out it neither. Niggers was funny that way, she mused. Wonder howcome she was different? Allus had been. Even when she was little, she was brightern Lizzie an’ Boon. She was scrawny but she was bright. And scrawny as she was, she had got Abram. Strongest nigger in Bell’s Quarters was hers. He was devilish like the rest of ‘em, but, Lord, that nigger was strong! He could er strangled that man there wit one er his hans. She looked down at the cross apprehensively. Might er done it too ‘cepin’ he had gone in to wn for keresene an’ that had carried him t’other way. This would be one time Abram wouldn’t be mess up in nothin’. He warn’t a bad nigger, couldn’t help stealin’ now an’ then, er gittin’ hissef drunk, er fightin’. It was in his blood like sense was in her s. Abram had sense too-almost as much as she had- when he warn’t drunk; but git that nigger drunk and he’d forget he a king an’ gonna git him a throne someday. Him an’ her-they gonna have ‘em a throne, Abram say. He gonna git ‘em a throne. Would too. Long ‘s he won’t drunk an’ didn’t git hissef in trouble. But he warn’t mess up in this killin’ here. This was some other nigger’s doin’, er maybe a white man’s. Maybe.

Vaguely she wondered if they might think she had killed the man.

They sho would if they seen her tracks leadin’ up to him. Now how they gonna know them her tracks? They warn’t God Amighty. Rosa put the basket on her head again and went back home.

She was sorting the Grocery-Store-Wilkinson’s wash from the Sheriff-Thomases when Abram came in. She heard three, slow, deliberate footsteps and thought it was someone else. Then the door creaked and he peered in. She knew he was drunk by the way he opene d the door. If it had weighed a hundred, he couldn’t have done it more slowly. Cheap wine-allus got him. Abram closed the door behind him with infinite care and tiptoed to the bed where she had the wash laid out.

“You ain’t gonna lie down on that wash, nigger!” she screamed as he lowered himself to the Sheriff’s stiff, green-striped shirt. Abram rolled over on the floor. Continue reading