Dusk Jacket Dispatch: Breece D’J Pancake

[With the bulk of your day likely consumed by work, meals, time spent with the family and mindless internet browsing, it can be intimidating to devote time to a book. Dusk Jacket Dispatch takes every Friday to profile an author worthy of your investment.]

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“I’m going to come back to West Virginia when this is over. There’s something ancient and deeply-rooted in my soul. I like to think that I have left my ghost up one of those hollows, and I’ll never really be able to leave for good until I find it. And I don’t want to look for it, because I might find it and have to leave.” — Breece Pancake, letter to his mother, Helen

It’s been 34 years now — since the writer with a funny name, only 26-years-old, placed a shotgun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. Six published short stories, two in The Atlantic Monthly, and another six to be found in the wake of the tragedy, would be his written legacy. The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake endures as a testament to an idiosyncratic voice and incredible talent, both fully-formed from a very young age.

Born in South Chaleston, West Virginia, Pancake grew up in the nearby town of Milton, his middle-class family ever-teetering on the precipice of being poor. That worn rural character is the baseline for his literary work — a well-realized and immaculate world in which weary workers and lost loves cohabit. The collection of his stories reads almost as a segmented novel, with each of its characters a part of a fully-fledged whole.

The intricate detail that Pancake casually weaves into every story is a wonder — from the tools used in a given profession to the geology and history of the entire territory. But it’s not just in the careful, measured depiction of his homeland that Pancake’s work garners its power. Rather it’s the acute evocation of the emotional landscapes of those who populate the hills and valleys. For someone who never had a chance to live into full adulthood, Pancake possessed a devastatingly sensitive understanding of its toils. Scattered across his stories are those anchored to their hometown through job or circumstance, scraping together just enough to “get by.”

Pancake doesn’t give voice to the men and women of Appalachia so much as he captures it. There’s an authenticity to the language and mannerism of these people — a turtle is a turkle, and a flirtatious girl is a chippy. You get the sense that he knew all of these individuals, or at least iterations of them, but its astounding to think of all that he intuited about their thoughts and inner lives. The stories are both harsh and beautiful, each full of that unavoidable weight of the past which the present must bear.

SO THIS GUY IS SOME HUGE UNKNOWN?

Though the brevity of his life and creative output limited his exposure, Pancake is not without his posthumous supporters. After Pancake’s death, author Kurt Vonnegut wrote in a letter to John Casey, “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.”

breece pancake

WHERE’D HE GET THAT NAME?

Believe it or not, “Pancake” is his given last name. Oddly enough, the one part of his moniker that isn’t legitimate is the format of his middle initials. In his afterward to Stories, Casey explains that origin, in the wake of Pancake’s first story appearing in The Atlantic: “The galley proofs came back with the middle initials of his name set up oddly: Breece D’J Pancake. He said fine, let it stay that way. It made him laugh, and, I think, it eased his sense of strain — the strain of trying to get things perfect — to adopt an oddity committed by a fancy magazine.”

ARE THE STORIES DIFFICULT TO READ?

Not at all. For all the detail he manages to pack into each story, Pancake’s prose is extremely direct and affecting. The decadent southern worlds of authors like Faulkner and McCullers are easy touchstones, but he’s really operating in a different mode. During his time at the University of Virginia, Pancake apparently found himself a bit stranded in the middle of easily-associated northerners and southerners — that sense of individuality and isolation is present in his writing across the collection.

IF HE WERE A FILMMAKER, HE’D BE…

Early David Gordon Green. The lyrical, observational nature of George Washington, All the Real Girls, and Snow Angels feel somewhat reminiscent of Pancake’s layered narratives. Both are content to limit the amount of conventional plot development in favor of crafting a palpable atmosphere for their characters. I also probably subconsciously correlate Green’s North Carolina locations as similar to those drawn in Pancake’s stories (though more local readers/viewers can likely realize the huge differences).

LET THERE BE QUOTES!

Here ya go.

“Well, when everybody’s going this way, it’s time to turn around and go that way, you know? … I don’t care if they end up shitting gold nuggets, somebody’s got to dig in the damn ground. Somebody’s got to.”

“I lean back, try to forget these fields and flanking hills. A long time before me or these tools, the Teays flowed here. I can almost feel the cold waters and the tickling the trilobites make when they crawl. All the water from the old mountains flowed west. But the land lifted. I have only the bottoms and stone animals I collect. I blink and breathe. My father is a khaki cloud in the canebrakes, and Ginny is no more to me than the bitter smell in the blackberry briers up on the ridge. ”

“Daylight fires the ridges green, shifts the colors of the fog, touches the brick streets of Rock Camp with a reddish tone. The streetlights flicker out, and the traffic signal at the far end of Front Street’s yoke snaps on; stopping nothing, warning nothing, rushing nothing on.”

SO I SHOULD BASICALLY BE TELLING EVERYBODY ABOUT THIS GUY, HUH?

Let me put it this way: I only just finished his collection about a week ago, and I already wrote this article. Pancake’s the type of writer who’s a joy to discover out of nowhere, the undeniable power of his writing a gift to the unsuspecting. Give this collection as a gift to anyone who loves literature, and they’ll be grateful for it.

COOL, BUT I ALREADY GOT MY SECRET SANTA THE NEW BRUNO MARS ALBUM

…. Who is this, anyway?

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james_02

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