Friday, September 20, 2013

A Serious Man

In 1979, a 26-year-old writer of uncommon talent sat under an apple tree, put the barrel of an over/under shotgun into his mouth and pulled the trigger. He had published just twelve stories in his short career, yet they were enough to convince a figure as titanic as Kurt Vonnegut to write the following:

"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. You and I will never know."

The writer in question -- heralded by the greats, stories as unhappy as his end -- was named Breece D'J Pancake.


Even devoid of context this is a strong name, at least a 7-seed. Sweet Sixteen material. It recalls and surpasses 2010 13-seed Roy Spancake. It's got the whole package: pleasingly improbable first name, delicious finish, topped off with a creatively-punctuated middle initial situation (reportedly the result of an error in the galleys of his first published story. Name-change sticklers, take heart: dude was born Breece Dexter Pancake, which has plenty to love on its own.)

Let me tell you what it's like to read Breece Pancake's writing from a name collector's point of view.

You'll sit down to a story ("Fox Hunters," say, although no matter which you pick you'll find yourself having to look up the word "berm") and if vivid landscape description is your thing, he'll have you by the end of paragraph #1. If not, you'll continue on and soon encounter dialogue deeply and provocatively tinged with local color -- parsing it requires effort, but there's definite payoff. Eventually you'll find yourself sucked so deeply into the experience of empathizing with Bo, a sixteen-year-old mechanic and the protagonist of "Fox Hunters," that you may put your book down as you remember what it was like to be sixteen and lusty and yearn for a feeling of inclusion in groups of more fully-grown men.

And then you'll look down at the book and giggle a little because you'll see the cover and remember that the man who wrote what you're reading was named Breece D'J Pancake, for chrissake. You just can't handle it. It is impossible to handle.

Breece Pancake's stories are short scenes from stagnant lives mired in his native West Virginia, which he plainly lays out as the bleakest state in the union. There is no pretension in his prose, no slack, it just is how it is. The stories aren't plot-driven; they're mainly scenes from lives whose main drama is long past, often aborted by horrific events. His protagonists are long-suffering farmers and strip-miners struggling to make a living off the barren land they've stayed on for generations out of stubbornness or loyalty. Though I'm willing to bet that the landscape will seem foreign to many contemporary readers, the characters' pain and the webs of obligations that inflict it are palpable. It feels real enough that if you can't directly relate you'll fear that you will someday.

But there's really no getting around the name. Despite his raw talent for rendering the pathos of everyday life, despite the brutal economy of his prose, despite the tragic suicide that robbed the world of a hugely promising literary figure, I will never be able to think or talk about Breece D'J Pancake without at least faint comic undertones.

This effect is more pronounced when reading about him. He seems to be pretty much universally beloved (I haven't yet found a word of bad press), so you'll find people using austere lit-crit voices to speak reverently about his incredible writing -- but every so often you'll look down to find the word PANCAKE glaring up at you from the page, which totally ruins any hope of giving his reviews, profiles, and retrospectives the attention they deserve:

"'Trilobites' is VINTAGE PANCAKE in another way." - The Atlantic, 2004

"A time for holy reflection or unholy capitulation -- take your pick, PANCAKE seems to say." - Andre Dubus III, afterword to The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake

(and probably my favorite)
"STILL IN THE GRIP OF PANCAKE'S ART, I saw how the language was overwrought and was not being used to serve my characters and their particular truths." - Andre Dubus III, afterword to The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake

His death robbed the world not only of a storyteller but also a potential Chrotchtangle Regional heavy-hitter. Rest in peace, Breece D'J Pancake. We hardly knew ye.

Voting starts Monday. Prepare accordingly.