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

Benjamin

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.

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.

Anders

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.

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...

Aidan Watson-Morris

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

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.

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 http://therevivalist.info/pancake-to-...

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.

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.

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.

Billy

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.

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."

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.

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

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