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

Aidan Watson-Morris

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


I'd never heard about Pancake's work before the story "Trilobites" was posted on Biblioklept a few weeks ago. I was taken by the voice in the piece, and its existential rumination within backwoods life intrigued me. I wanted more. I was happy to discover many of the stories in this collection are even better than "Trilobites." They all involve West Virginia (or thereabouts) and seemingly mundane moments that actually speak of something deeper. People wrestle their own souls against backdrops of strip mining and county fairs. And although the setting and some the themes come again and again, Pancake played with voice and storytelling forms enough that there isn't too much "samey" feel in this slim volume. In fact, many of these stories were so rich, with such a combination of darkness and light, that I wished they were not short works, but novels so I could spend hours, days, weeks in those places with his words.


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.


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.

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.

Ty Melgren

Felt like I was sitting in my truck, watching the same story happen over and over. It was an okay story, but once I heard it once, why tell me it twelve more times. "Trilobites" was my favorite version of it, and "Fox Hunters," "The Mark," and "The Honored Dead" are the other ones I'll remember a little.

Steve Petherbridge

Breece Pancake shot himself at 27, after being quite successful, receiving recognition of his skill as a writer and getting work published, but, there are just 12 stories here. He captures the landscape, poverty and people of West Virginia in gritty, edgy, poignant, emotional and, often, dark prose. I had to re-read a couple of the stories to "get them" and to get a handle on the local colloquialisms. There's no doubting his gifted talent, but, he was a very troubled young man and this is always on the reader's mind, and comes through in his writing. He was a true writer of the American South, but, a realist, the real deal, with a great visual sense and a very tough wisdom of life, a life that must have scarred him in some way for him to end it as he did. Was he impatiently striving for an unattainable perfectionism, while also trying to fit into life? Did he feel that he had exhausted his talent already? Would a young Hemmingway, with similar thoughts, have taken a similar exit, or, "divorce from life", as Pancake hinted to friends. These are only my thoughts and are prompted by the illustrative foreword and afterword of the book, written by obviously very close friends and admirers.The economic and terse prose displays themes of intense bitterness, self-doubt, self-hate and the stories are populated by troubled souls, loners, lost and frightened young men, haunted by having disappointed themselves and, in some sad cases, their fathers. These men are not well educated, awkward around love and expressing emotions and are waiting in some way for life to kick-start. However, these are real characters. They are miners, truckers and labourers and often trapped, but, dreaming of escaping from West Virginia, but, finding it difficult to do so, while comforted by what little they have and knowing their land, nature and the wildlife they hunt. However, many are guilt-ridden and are trying to do the right thing, for example, by caring for feeble and elderly parents or staying on the farm to make it work, themes we are all familiar with in families worldwide.Pancake captures the dominance and timelessness of the barren and often stifling West Virginian landscape. His only collection of stories depict a timelessness that, because of their craft, will continue to keep Breece Pancake alive. His writing style is unique and takes a fair bit of concentration, but, is worth the effort for it immerses the reader in Breece Pancake's West Virginia. This is a book that I feel that I will re-read for the raw emotion and unique prose.As Richard Ford said, "Short stories want to give us something big, but, want to do it in precious little time and space". With these 12 stories and his short and troubled life, Breece Pancake achieved this. You will not read a collection like these by any other writer, but, I recommend the experience.

Barton Smock

two in particular, 'the mark' and 'the honored dead'. pancake dumbs nothing down nor does he hold it up. the writing is just so generous, and benefits the doubt. haven't been so stilled by a book in so long. I found no copied voice in the book; it is singular. sentences are clipped and rhythmic, but loaded. it is a private room makes the house seem bigger.


Occasionally one comes across a writer who seems to exist causa sui, not a product so much as an expression of circumstance. Breece Pancake is of this rare strain. His stories are gems without fissure, staggering glimpses of lives worn down by time and experience. This collection is absolutely excellent.

Mark Lynn

The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake is probably the singular most influential book I've ever read. His vivid, moody portraits of West Virginia changed the way I saw Appalachia and the way I write. In fact, my very first blog post was about this book. Here's how it begins:In April 1979, Breece D’J Pancake broke into a neighboring home in Charlottesville, Virginia. He sat alone in the dark until the owners returned; then he bolted to his own place and unloaded a shotgun into his mouth. He was a powerful drinker; apparently depressive; and, though he may not have known it, he changed Appalachian literature.Continue reading at


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

B. Rule

These are hard, flinty stories and you can taste the coal dust of West Virginia mines on them. Breece writes without tenderness but with some humor and a keen psychological understanding about the characters that populate the hollows of his home state, and it's clear that he has an innate feeling for the rhythms of that society. These are stories where people live lives filled with regret and are squeezed by poverty and impossible choices, and an inordinate number of animals die senseless deaths. Beautifully written and suffused with a sense of place, Pancake was a true voice of West Virginia.


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.

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.

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