While others enjoyed the summer’s offerings of music festivals and fun, I found myself in the altogether more quiet and sombre company of another DJ – Mr Breece D’J Pancake. Unlike your average DJ, Pancake’s setlist is rather small – he died at the age of 26 having produced only twelve stories, which are collected into a single volume and published by Vintage. But these stories, few as they are, and short as they are, pack a punch well above their weight, and have given Pancake in recent years that same fame-for-having-been-forgotten that was bestowed upon John Williams for his novel Stoner.
Breece Pancake was born in West Virginia, and his stories are about West Virginia. In a letter to his mother from outside of the state he wrote of it, saying: “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.” These stories deal with the past, with the feeling that everything in the present is getting worse with nary an end in sight. Coal, drinking, and violence are the orders of the day in a bleak world characterised by a relentless harshness.
Pancake’s prose is as hard as the stories’ worldview. Short sentences, never more than a clause or two long, dominate. He knows what he is talking about and does not need to hide behind an overwrought style. Farmers, coal miners, hunters – all of them men, all of them young – are his protagonists, and each of their professions is described with a loving care and easy familiarity: whether it be cutting open a roe deer or catching fish the descriptions speak to Pancake’s experience and the depth of his involvement in the world and day-to-day life of the mountain state. That’s not to say he is without style. His language is idiomatic, full of words and sounds regional and hard to work out. But instead of driving us away, they add to the mystery of his clipped sentences, and make us feel like outsiders, but all the same present and witnessing and looking on in uncertainty.
“Trilobites” is the story I read first, and probably the most well-known of them. Colly is a man whose hobby is searching for fossils in the land around his home. His mind, not just from the hobby, is stuck in the past. As he walks around town at the story’s start a concrete patch, looking like Florida, is all it takes to draw him back to an old and lost love – “I recollect what I wrote in Ginny’s yearbook: ‘We will live on mangoes and love.’” His whole life seems determined by the past – he lives on a farm, about to be sold due to his father’s sudden death, and tries his best to emulate the dead man to stave off the sale. Without success. “Yessir, Colly, you couldn’t grow pole beans in a pile of horseshit,” he says in a moment of melancholy humour.
The story is occasioned by the return home of the same Ginny, who left two years before to study in Florida without him. Colly is torn between wanting to meet her and to avoid her. She only appears in person near the story’s end. Before then, Colly wastes time, chatting in a bar with an older friend who points out the waitress, an attractive girl who reminds Colly of Ginny. But he can’t go after her, because “she’s jailbait”. Colly’s present moment is filled with painful memories of the past, and no potential escape.
When he finally sees Ginny she is changed completely. “She is somebody I met a long time ago. I can’t remember her name for a minute, then it comes back to me”. As they talk Colly circles around the present, around their homeland and death and decay. But she has other things on her mind, has a boyfriend now, has moved on. He sinks as she becomes more buoyant. Finally, terribly, Colly rapes her. In his mind he thinks: “She isn’t making love, she’s getting laid”. The worst thing for him is that not even this physical contact can return what they once had together, what he has now lost and she has found elsewhere. Depressed still further, he imagines he’s having sex with the jailbait instead.
After Ginny goes, her taillights “reddish blurs in the fog”, Colly settles down for introspection, alone. He decides to leave this place. “I’ll spend tonight at home. I’ve got eyes to shut in Michigan—maybe even Germany or China, I don’t know yet. I walk, but I’m not scared. I feel my fear moving away in rings through time for a million years.” After all that has happened, he has been shaken out of the past. Suddenly, there is a note of hope, even if it is tinged with uncertainty. This is the closest thing to optimism that we’re going to find here in these stories, and we must hold it close.
“Hollow” is another example where Pancake truly shines. It tells the story of one day in the life of Buddy, a miner in a world where mining is running out of steam. He reminisces early on about his childhood: “but that came before everything; before they moved from the ridge, before the big mine closed, before welfare.” It is another story where the past often seems to be all the characters have left. But it’s also one of those stories that strengthens our empathy and makes us kinder and more understanding of others. Pancake describes the other miners in such a way that they seem close to us, like people we once knew. His dialogue is superb, musical and authentic: “Ain’t nothin’ but coal in this here hole. When we gonna hit gold?” one miner says. The story ends with Buddy heading out alone into the wilderness with his gun and his life in tatters. At the final moment, though, he changes his target and shoots and kills a deer to eat for dinner. Pancake’s world is fragile, but not without its own faith and redemptions.
In a sense, Pancake seems an unlikely candidate for anyone at Cambridge to enjoy reading. We seem far away, wholly distant and cut off from the poor young man wandering the roads of West Virginia, lost in sadness. He spoke to me, though. In these stories, for all their pessimism, illness, infidelity, rape and violence, there is something vital and more true and real than there is to be found in this dim and dusty bookish metropolis. These people populating his worlds, suffering greatly, are alive. Their stories prey on the doubt, deep and primal as a trilobite, that for all our learning and knowledge we here have not felt the slightest shard of real and painful feeling, or experienced life in all its rugged beauty.
Breece Pancake died at the age of 26 by his own hand. Amateur detectives will easily find in these tough little tales thoughts and ideas suggesting that perhaps this was going to happen all along. Pancake wedded himself to his home state with such earnestness that it would have been hard for its decay not to hurt his heart too. But in these stories there isn’t only anguish – throughout these pages and all the time you can feel the love he must have felt for the mountain state he wrote his whole life about, love that pulses like a beating heart long after his own ceased.