The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake
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.
That is the opening paragraph from Trilobites, the story that opens this collection and the first of Pancake's to be published by the venerable magazine, The Atlantic, at the end of 1977. It is also the reason for his rather odd name, the result of a typing error on the first galley proofs that Pancake received, an accident he apparently embraced with humour - 'Fine, let it stay that way' - finding amusement in the release of his sense of strain - the strain of trying to get things perfect. That strain never eased sufficiently; despite having other stories published in the same magazine Pancake died from a self-inflicted shotgun wound less than two years later, an apparent suicide at the age of 26, perhaps never realising just how good a writer he was.
Literature is a filled with stories of unfulfilled potential and it must be very easy to overstate the case with so little to go on; how many actors have been hailed as potential masters of the craft on the back of a few okay films, good looks and a pharmacological mistake? This isn't a perfect collection, some of the stories are definitely better than others, but the best of them really are utterly brilliant and the collection as a whole has a sense of something so genuine, something rooted in the West Virginian landscape that shapes them, that they deserve to be protected with some kind of official stamp, something like the PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) that lets you know that your Prosciutto is the real deal.