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.