Trilobites: & Other Stories

ISBN: 0436353849
ISBN 13: 9780436353840
By: Breece D'J Pancake

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About this book

Bolton Davis, reviewing The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake in the San Francisco Review of Books wrote, "Like fossils formed over millions of years by enormous pressures in a single place, these stories have the polished, purged, hard-won qualities that will insure that they last far longer than the flesh that once inhabited them."Breece D'J Pancake cut short a remarkably promising career when he took his own life in 1979 at the age of 26. In 1983, Little, Brown and Company's posthumous publication of this book, a collection of stories that depict, with astonishing power and grace, the world of Pancakes native rural West Virginia, electrified the literary world with a force that still resounds across two decades. The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake has remained continuously in print. A perennial favorite among aspiring writers, participants in creative writing programs, and students of contemporary American fiction. "Trilobites", the first of Pancakes stories to be published in The Atlantic, elicited an extraordinary response from readers in 1977 and continues to be widely anthologized. Upon its initial publication, The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake received front-page reviews in newspapers and literary periodicals throughout the country.

Reader's Thoughts

Sophie

Tight prose. Chiseled. (from the preface by James McPherson) -We once attended a movie together, and during the intermission, when people crowded together in the small lobby, he felt closed in and shouted, "Move away! Make room! Let people through!" the crowd, mostly students, immediately scattered. Then Breece turned to me and laughed. "They're clones!" he said. "They're CLONES!"-The hillsides are baked here and have heat ghosts.-I watch the cattle play. A rain must be coming. A rain is always coming when cattle play. Sometimes they play for snow, but mostly it is rain. -Curtis came up behind them, smiling. "I'm goin' home an' get all drunked up."-I know the waiting eats at me again. -With day and danger advancing, fear was blushing in her as she backed cautiously into higher brush. -"Ain't none of MY biz-whacks," Bill snapped. "By god, I mind my own biz-whacks."-She wore two print cotton dresses -- one over the other. Two-dress fall, Bo thought, means a three-dress-and-coat-winter.-I make the big turn at Chimney Corners and see a hitchhiker standing there. His front is clean, and he looks half frozen, so I stop to let him in. -She felt sorry for Tyler and his mole-killing foot, but knew it would always be that way with him. -Skeevy looked to the yellow pines on the western hills: the way the light hit them reminded him of grouse-hunting with Bund, of pairing off in the half-day under the woven branches, of the funny human noises the birds made before they flew, and how their necks were always broken when you picked them up. -"I don't care if they end up shitting gold nuggets, somebody's got to dig in the damn ground. Somebody's got to."-but he was sitting in the kitchen reading a newspaper, and he was stoned sober out of his mind.-The women are dressed in long skirts; only half-pretty women, too soon gone old. He wonders about the colors of their world: flour-sack print dresses, dark wool suits; a bluer sky by day, a blacker night. Now days and night blur, and the old clothes are barn rags, brown with tractor grease. -"Everybody's trying for something better anymore. When everybody's going one way, it's time to turn back." He rationalized in five directions.-The land lay brittle, open, and dead.

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."

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.

CA

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.CAConradhttp://CAConrad.blogspot.com

Nick

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.

Jessica

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.

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.

Alan

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.

Wendell

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.

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.

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.

Alex

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.

Paul

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.

Ben

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.

Powells.com

"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, Powells.com

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