Tuesday, 26 April 2011

'time had gone by too soon'

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.

West Virginia is known as the Mountain State, a region of forests, gorges and hollows rather than the flat plains of the American midwest. That kind of topography influences these stories that might be said to share the theme of stasis vs the need to escape. They are peopled by ordinary men and women with ordinary hopes and fears; coal miners, boatmen, labourers, fighters. The huge success of these stories and  one factor that makes them so influential to other writers is highlighted by Andre Dubus III in his excellent new afterword.
'with some of the other writers I'd been reading at the time, I could feel a slightly judgemental quality in the prose, as if the characters in the story were not so much real people as they were props being used to make wise, sardonic points about the human condition. With Pancake, there is none of this. On the contrary, there is the opposite feeling; his stories' characters are not mere inventions but flesh-and-blood human beings whom he suffers along with, believes in, and ultimately loves, no matter how far they might fall.'
This is also part of the reason why writing a satisfactory post will surely prove impossible because whilst reading, when I should be marking passages and keeping an outside eye on my critical response, I came instead under the same spell as Dubus 'moved by all these people and their tough lives'. A first reading isn't enough but I'm not convinced that I'd ever be able to write the perfect post without actually going back to school and studying it all. So the short version: Buy this book immediately and read it when you feel the need for a literary shot in the arm. You won't regret it (and that's the closest you'll get to a money back gurantee from me)

(this line break represents several weeks)

In fact in an unusual admission I am going to hold my hands up and say that after several failed attempts I am going to admit defeat on this post. Now normally I would just delete it and put it down to experience but I really want you to read this book so I'm taking a hefty dose of humility in the hope that you might do just that. In the original Foreword by James Alan McPherson he speculates about what might have contributed to Pancake's death. He was a great giver of gifts apparently and McPherson wonders whether the man who had cultivated the persona of Provider also expected things of others, needed perhaps just a simple gesture but was so frustrated by his attempts that it looks to be 'hopeless except through the written word? In such a situation, a man might look at his typewriter, and then at the rest of the world, and just give up the struggle.'

I'm going to give up my own struggle and trust that these links to the stories Trilobites and In The Dry will be enough to help you understand what a special writer Pancake both was and is.


Stewart 24 May 2011 at 10:51  

Great to see you read this. Never ever got round to reviewing it in full. Initially I was trying to get a review done for the 30th Anniversary of his death a couple of Aprils back, but that deadline slipped. Also, based on his liking of American fiction, gave a copy to Joe at Penguin at the Edinburgh Book Festival in 2009. It's one of those books that I've actively shared.

I've lost count of the times I've read Trilobites. Just a fantastic story where everything falls into place and works so well.

I've also got the biography and letters of Pancake sitting about. I should perhaps read the stories one more time and then hit that book.

William Rycroft 24 May 2011 at 11:33  

I just adored reading these stories and I can imagine it being the kind of book I'll press into people's hands in the future. A real book to gift to fellow readers. Reviewing it is tough as I spectacularly showed with this post, if you do ever get round to it I look forward to your thoughts Stewart. Thanks for your comments.

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