Amidst a shelf overfull with the usual suspects found skulking about used book sales—James Michener, Joyce Carol Oates, and the later iterations of John Updike’s Rabbit series—a peculiar spine stuck out. The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake. At first I imagined the book to be some sort of elaborate hoax, a Borgesian ruse perpetrated by James Alan McPherson and John Casey, who wrote the foreword and afterward to the book, respectively. But upon tilting it out and leafing through McPherson’s foreword, it became clear that the title was deathly serious. During his first year teaching at the University of Virginia, McPherson relates his meeting and befriending a young writer from West Virginia who was at the university as a teaching assistant. McPherson introduced the young man, Breece Pancake, to an editor at The Atlantic who proceeded to buy several of his stories for the magazine and whose typographical error transfigured Pancake’s middle initials. A bit more than a year after Pancake had several of his stories accepted by The Atlantic, McPherson left Charlottesville for Yale. He didn’t hear of his friend until a year later when he received a telegram from John Casey, informing him that he had killed himself.
The fortuitous path through which this collection of stories came into my hands and the tragedy of the author’s life story only partially prepared me for the power of the writing to follow. The opening paragraph of the collection’s first story, “Trilobites,” speaks for itself:
I open the truck’s door, step onto the brick side street. I look at Company Hill again, all sort of worn down and round. A long time ago it was real craggy and stood like an island in the Teays River. It took over a million years to make that smooth little hill, and I’ve looked all over it for trilobites. I think how it has always been there and always will be, at least for as long as it matters. The air is smoky with summertime. A bunch of starlings swim over me, I was born in this country and I have never very much wanted to leave. I remember Pop’s dead eyes looking at me. They were real dry, and that took something out of me. I shut the door, head for the cafe.
Pancake’s writing is devastating in its beauty. He evokes the landscape of West Virginia and the inhabitants of those small town mountain hollows with a sinewy and precise prose that comes as close to Hemingway as anything I’ve ever read. And the force of his prose is just the beginning. “Breece Pancake’s stories comprise no less than an American Dubliners,” raves Jayne Ann Phillips on the back dust jacket. “We find here a landscape preserved in rich sadness because it is forgotten, a people whose lives are informed by loss, wrenching cruelty, and the luminous dignity which marks the endurance of all that is most human.” There may have been a time when Pancake’s stories were passed around like the precious and fragile objects they are, handled with the careful attention that the stories of Joseph Roth or Leonard Michaels are given today. But in the (admittedly non-exhaustive) research I have done, I could find only a few smatterings of information about Pancake and his work. I can only hope that my research skills aren’t up to par, that a Breece D’J Pancake fan club is out there promoting his work and that Little, Brown is preparing to rerelease his stories. For it would be a shame if this magnificent jewel slipped beneath the couch cushions of literary history.