The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake

ISBN: 0316715972
ISBN 13: 9780316715973
By: Breece D'J Pancake James Alan McPherson Andre Dubus III

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About this book

Breece D'J Pancake cut short a promising career when he took his own life at the age twenty-six. Published posthumously, this is a collection of stories that depict the world of Pancake's native rural West Virginia.

Reader's Thoughts


Not what I was expecting, but it was still wonderful. Pancake was a terrific writer and while I followed the stories I couldn't help but be reminded of HP Lovecraft; doom was interwoven into every part of his character's lives, they and the reader couldn't evade it. It was sad and lovely.


As a writer and a native West Virginian, it was inevitable that someone would recommend this collection to me eventually. I rarely read an entire collection of short stories in one sitting, but this blew my socks off. What I love about Pancake's writing is it's unpretentiousness--his syntax is deceptively simple, his images are down-to-earth, body-driven, visceral. Even though most of the collection concerns male characters, Pancake does not fall into the Hemingway/Salinger trap of using simple syntax as a weapon to beat you over the head with brooding, hyper-masculinity. Nor does he write with Flannery O'Connor's wry sense of irony toward the lower classes (this is not "Shit Poor People Do"). Instead, Pancake creates vivid miniature portraits of West Virginia that show both the landscape's beauty and dangers. And Pancake is unwaveringly generous toward his characters; while other writers would look down their noses at such people and them only to make abstract points about life's ironies, Pancake shows us their humanity, their complex desires and the ways in which their lives have been shaped by the vertical, shadow-filled landscape of West Virginia.


WITHOUT A DOUBT one of the great books of American short stories by a talent gone entirely too soon. Who knows what Mr. Pancake would have served up for us. This collection as a whole encompasses the darkness of American careening down the long open roads on a collision with every disaster from which we think ourselves invincible. Even the author left us on that very road he described better than most.CAConrad


The stories of Breece D'J Pancake (real name) look unflinchingly at the gritty realities of the impoverished Appalachian region-- its difficulties, tragedies, and impossibilities, and the strength that people pull together which is somehow never quite enough. Pancake grew up in the hills of West Virginia and took his own life with in 1979 at the age of 27, just as his literary career was beginning to gain a little momentum. While alive, The Atlantic accepted a few of his stories for publication, but this posthumous collection brings together the work he was doing in the University of Virginia's creative writing program just before his death. This collection isn't for the weak of heart, and should be avoided when already feeling down. I basically had to put the book down after each story to catch my breath and collect myself. They're heavy, pounding stuff that'll get caught in your head.In his work, it is evident that Pancake was weighted down by the psychological ramifications of the decaying South's extreme poverty. This collection is packed with frustration-- young girls taking to prostitution, beloved dogs being murdered by best friends, serial killers, heavy drinkers, waitresses, cockfights. Pretty much every story features a character whose life had been charted out since they were conceived, born into a household ripped apart and forced upon a path not of their own choosing. In this light, it's tempting to read Pancake's own biography as just another story in his collection. James Alan MacPherson, a professor who took Pancake under his wing at U of VA and encouraged him to send his work out for publication does just that. A writer in his own right, MacPherson's introduction manages to do just that. I would recommend the introduction on its own, it's that good. Most importantly, the introduction captures the deep respect MacPherson had for Pancake and inspires the reader to feel the same way after understanding Pancake's own battles. It shows that the dark, crushing powers which Pancake shows ripping his characters apart inside acted on him as well.Parallels of Pancake's work can be noticed in early Palace Brothers albums, specifically "Days in the Wake," or the work of director David Gordon Green ("George Washington," "All the Real Girls"), both of whom may well have been inspired by Pancake's work. These artists similarly capture a certain feeling of modern post-industrial Southern intellectualism and sensitivity which, rather than allowing an escape from the poverty of opportunity plaguing them, instead gives their protagonists a vivid and profound awareness of what they're losing and missing. These stories are rich with regional detail-- the characters use Southern syntax so deep that it can be indeterminate what they're talking about, but this doesn't detract from the stories. The detail Pancake infuses into the stories lends them a magical feeling, shrouds them in a bit of mystery that serves to cut through what I think is a natural predilection on the part of Northerners to condescend to the people of the South. The people of Pancake's stories are experts in their own right, can hunt, skin, brine, and eat a squirrel without too much thought, and are aware of and ripped apart by obligation, family, lust, and impossibility.

"I give you my word of honor that he is merely the best writer, the most sincere writer I've ever read. What I suspect is that it hurt too much, was no fun at all to be that good." — Kurt VonnegutAt the age of 26, Breece D'J Pancake took his own life and left the world to wonder what might have been. Four years later, with the release of this book, the world got a little taste. The stories collected here are powerful, yet uncomplicated. They cut to the soul of what it is to be human no matter your locale (in this case, rural West Virginia). Maybe you don't want to know about rural West Virginia, but surely you want to know what it is to be human.Recommended by Shawn,


Pancake's characters are all operating on everything they've got, which is about 70% of what they need. His protagonists, by and large, hunt through these stories driven by hunger and led by a stubborn sense that a sort of perfection can be found in simple human kindness. They're bursting with a desire to give everything of themselves, but seldom find takers. The stories themselves are descriptions of good, flawed people--noble people--operating on tiny margins, making bruising marches through the human scree that accumulates when most everyone's scrapping to make ends meet, when most everyone's got their sights set, understandably, closer to their own feet than to the stars (yeah, "eyes on the stars" is a trite little formula; in "Trilobites", Pancake uses fossils to suggest what I'm fumbling for here, the terrifyingly abiding awareness of something impossibly distant but immediately apprehendable, and good).It might help if you've spent some time in Appalachia and have a non-ironic appreciation for the place. But that'll just give you a readier sense of Pancake's wonderfully wrought physical and human landscapes. I've seen these characters in Brooklyn and Ecuador and rural Minnesota and Chicago. Pancake was one of the greatest American short-story writers, and our times are righter for his work than his were.

Michael Seidel

Gorgeously-rendered stories about a harsh, lonely American South that was going then and gone now. The time and place he describes are not things I can ever know the way he did, but the precision of his language proved to me that harshness and loneliness never disappear, they only morph, adapt. Pancake's prose is a time capsule for helping us see how little the human condition changes, even after world tilts fully.


fantastic writing, grim subject matter, the trials of working class people in a small rural town. A precursor to Carver but also more expansive. Would have been a great writer had he not committed suicide.

Bridget Hoida

Ever buy a book for the poem on the first, unnumbered, page because the poem is so spot on you can hardly stand it? And you didn't have a pen or a big enough scrap of paper or the time to kneel in the aisle of the store and scribble the first line and maybe perhaps the author? And although Professor Dane taught you well and with certainty how to lift a page from any book, including those in fancy temperature controlled archival rooms--like the Huntington and the Bancroft and the Getty--you resist and buy the whole damn thing, in hardcover, even though you are fairly sure no one is watching, and even if they were with some spit and a string you could lift it anyhow. So you buy it outright and tote it through the city. Even though your walk is long and the Santa Anas are blowing hot and your bag is already bursting with books you haven't yet read, and are supposed to, and most likely will not get to. You buy it and forget about it. You buy it and shelve it with the others. And then one day, when the very same winds are blowing hot and nasty you recall the poem and search out the book only the poem isn't in there anymore. Someone tore it out. Without class. Without style or skill. With jagged edges. So you flip through the book hoping it's folded in half and tucked neatly inside and that's when the words start and draw you in and you realize the poem was a piece of crap written by a two bit hack, but this book...

Nicholas Montemarano

I've owned this book for about 10 years but hadn't read it until now. One of those books about which I'd heard so much praise. Some of it's deserved, I'd say. The stories - the only book we'll ever have from Pancake - show incredible promise, especially considering he wrote them in his 20s, but some didn't feel finished; a few read more like sketches, slices of life. This might be okay - the main protagonist of the collection is the back woods West Virginia country Pancake clearly knew intimately - but the cumulative effect of the book is undermined by an oppressively repetitive bleakness. Pancake hits the same notes over and over and over. A tragic and moving note, to be sure; but 6 or 7 stories into the collection, I found myself becoming numb to the characters' difficult situations and failed or failing relationships. Pancake's descriptions of the landscape are lush, and what he notices for us - little gems of observation - make the collection worth reading. Two or three of the twelve stories are keepers; try "Trilobites," "Hollow," and "Fox Hunters."


The author died young. Suicide. The stories are tough, he's sort of a more drunken, more poverty stricken Raymond Carver. But I mean that in a good way. I think this book may be out of print. Find it if you can though, or call, you can borrow mine.

R.G. Evans

Had Breece D’J Pancake been a rock musician rather than a fiction writer, he would have become one of the cynically-named “27 Club”--along with Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain and others—when he ended his life at age 27 with a shotgun blast. What fuse lies hidden and waiting to be lit inside the creative mind that so often leads toward self-destruction? Breece Pancake’s demise was more closely akin to those musical icons rather than his fellow suicide and literary forebear Ernest Hemingway, because unlike Hemingway, sick and well beyond his heyday in letters, Pancake was at the height of his powers when he ended his life in 1979. Maybe it was the genetically-coded hopelessness that came with living in a post-war, post-boom rural West Virginia best captured in this passage from “The Salvation of Me”:“You have never broken a mirror or walked under ladders or celebrated Saint Paddy’s day if you have never heard of Rock Camp, but you might have lost a wheel, fallen off a biplane wing, or crossed yourself left-handedly if you have. The three latter methods are the best way to get into Rock Camp, and any viable escape is unknown to anybody but Chester, and he is unavailable for comment.”Pancake’s stories are peopled mostly by those without “any viable escape”: the son in “First Day in Winter” stuck on a dying farm with his aging parents and an inoperable car; wheelchair bound Buster in “In the Dry,” permanently injured in a car wreck caused by his own sociopathic impulses. Many stories involved characters trapped by long-ago acts of violence which bind them to the gray-brown West Virginia hills psychically, even if they have means of physical escape. Many stories, like “The Scrapper” or “The Fox Hunters,” are run through with violence just as those same hills are run through with veins of anthracite. Break the surface, and the darkness is there.What Breece Pancake may have achieved in literature had he lived is impossible to say. What is obvious from these stories that survive him, though, is that this was an author with the geographical scope of Faulkner and the linguistic economy and control of Hemingway and that the “27 Club” didn’t need him as much as we did.

Aidan Watson-Morris

these stories are really good examples of what writing can do so well but is rarely used for.


The first thing you must do to appreciate the strengths of the twelve stories posthumously collected in The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake is to distance yourself from the cult of Breece D'J Pancake, an accretion that has formed around his writing since his suicide in 1979 at the age of 27.There is certainly good writing here, but Pancake wasn't quite yet the new Hemingway of his jacket copy or the savior of modern fiction. Several of his stories are well-polished gems, but more than a few ("The Mark," for example) are simply incomprehensible.In these twelve stories, in fact, there are several occasions when Pancake walks too far over the line that separates the effective, authentic use of slang, accent, and jargon from the creation of a text that is both alien and alienating, where the reader can barely find a toe-hold. Arguably, that makes the stories "true," but it also effectively narrows their ability to communicate, which is something a writer ought to be concerned about.Taking all twelve as a whole, meanwhile, there's a sameness to their language and tone that wears much less well than many of Pancake's admirers seem to recognize, especially the considerable group of them who are worshipful to such a distorted extent that one begins to to suspect it is the mythology of the poète maudit that appeals and not the writer .Since Pancake's death, meanwhile, the boom in "new" Southern writing has brought us a bumper crop of writers who explore many of the same issues of class, family, origin, geography-as-destiny, and cultural estrangement that were Pancake's palette (Chris Offutt and Keith Banner come immediately to mind, but there are dozens).Pancake's work, then, is foundational but he's not necessarily the best at the game. More than anything, I am unmoved by Pancake's adherence to what I would call the "Iowa Writers' Workshop" school of story-writing, which is the inclination to write muscular, painstakingly crafted stories that are linguistically imposing but in which ABSOLUTELY NOTHING HAPPENS.They become (not just Pancake's stories, but the orthodoxy as a whole) sedulous but frequently overconscientious miniatures and I find them, frankly, to be a bore. Yes; it's a matter of personal taste, but I want a short story to tell me a story, not give me ten carefully honed minutes in the life of someone whom the author examines microscopically but to no apparent purpose.The fact that the arts-reward system overly privileges this style in short fiction (what my dear friend and mentor Jim Colbert called the "pif" story--short for "epiphany," meaning that the reader is supposed to search hard for deep moments of change, illumination, or psychological revelation in the mica-thin layers of lapidary prose) fails to convince me of its intrinsic worth.


To stumble on Breece D'J Pancake is to learn a whole bunch of lessons about the nature of genuine talent. Genuine talent doesn't require that you relate to it or find yourself in its depictions or learn important life lessons or be the first to tell your friends your eye for it. Genuine talent doesn't need cheerleaders or fawning critics or book clubs.Genuine talent overwhelms and defies its lesser rivals.The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake comprises genuine talent and acts as a fine standard against which other "great" collections of contemporary American short stories might be measured.There is none of the look-at-me-I'm-a-writer! silliness that plagues so much contemporary short fiction. There are none of the tricks that turn up in creative writing seminars. There is just hard storytelling about hard people done with a master's understanding of what details are relevant and what details are only likely to interest bauble collectors.Here's a sample:"Cephus threw water on Skeevy, and he spat out the bitten-off tip of his tongue. Gibson waited as Skeevy raised himself to a squat. His head cleared, and he knew he could get up."That has none of the delicacy and overwrought phrasing of a graduate student. That is writing as it is done by a person anxious to tell a story about more than just a writer telling a story. Would that Pancake had lasted long enough to teach us how to write novels too.

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