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


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.

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

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.

Aidan Watson-Morris

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


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


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.

Patrick Faller

This collection of 12 stories set in rural West Virginia ca. 1960-70 is remarkable for the texture of Pancake's voice. What's most attractive to me about the voice here is the way Pancakes manages to derive a sort of landscape-specific syntax, what John Casey in his afterword refers to as Pancake's ability to relate the "physical to the felt". Pancake links a character's emotional core to the dusty wind, the dry land, the rough-hewn fence post against which they lean. Through this craft device, Pancake underscores his characters' deep connections to the place; so deeply are they of the land that it gouges out and dries their emotions, their cores, their values. On this basic, experiential level, Pancake suggests the ways an individual is linked not only to the land but to the traditions, values, and the culture shaped by the land and those who've made lives out of working with what the land's given them.


I just purchased a third copy of this book. The first two were thrust into the hands of unsuspecting friends. I am eager to become reacquainted.So plaintive. so emotive. gut wrenching. I'm not sure how I've never run across this guy, but he is absolutely captivating. A tragic personal story, not too dissimilar to John Kennedy Toole from what I understand. He ultimately succumbed to his pain and committed suicide before he could gain the recognition deserved. The Hemingway comparison is obvious, the writing is contemplative and as inornate as his characters. The characters reflect a deep personal struggle, but with an inability to sustain development, whether from impotence or happenstance. They love too much or they hurt too much but without any means to grow from experience. The setting is rural, west virginia. These are stories of coal miners. Farmers of barren land. Amateur rock collectors, trying to find meaning in the world around them. Trying to find meaning in their own lives, in the circumstances that left them in a state of stagnation. Read with three fingers of bourbon.


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.

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.


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.

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.


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.


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.

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