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


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.

Scott Hammer

The comparison to Hemingway is inevitable, but should be avoided. Save that for Raymond Carver (or his editor) instead. These stories are quiet and unbearably lonely. Terse prose and regional affect. I don't mind, as most people do, the idea that Pancake had some sort of promise unfulfilled. By reading these stories, I can't imagine how he could have done anything else other than end his life. I mean that as a compliment. This collection is so heartbreaking, so real, there is absolutely no posturing here. This is the kind of book that, having read many times, I still cringe to open a little. That, too, is a compliment.

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.

Aidan Watson-Morris

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

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.

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

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.


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.


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.

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 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.


Almost all of these stories are amazing. The only ones that fall short of amazing are the ones that feel both a little overwritten and under-edited (mutually exclusive things, I believe), and even then they were pretty good. That and a little bit of non-artful misogyny as well kept this from being a 5-star collection.

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.

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."

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