Twenty-five years ago this month, on the evening of April 8, 1979, the young author Breece D'J Pancake placed the barrels of a shotgun in his mouth and took his own life. He was twenty-six. At the time of his death he had published six short stories, two of them in The Atlantic Monthly. Two more would appear in The Atlantic's pages over the next few years. Phoebe-Lou Adams, Pancake's editor at the magazine, said in 1982, "In thirty-some years at the Atlantic, I cannot recall a response to a new author like the response to this one. Letters drifted in for months, obviously from people who knew nothing about him, asking for more stories, inquiring for collected stories, or simply expressing admiration and gratitude. Whatever it is that truly commands reader attention, he had it." When the Atlantic Monthly Press and Little, Brown jointly published Pancake's twelve completed works as The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake in 1983, he achieved posthumous acclaim as a writer of the first order. "One is tempted to compare his debut to Hemingway's," wrote Joyce Carol Oates in her review of the book; the quote graces the cover of a recent paperback edition of the collection, released in 2002.
Breece D'J Pancake wrote exclusively about the sons and daughters of the dissipated Appalachian world in which he was raised. They were the people he knew, and he seems to have felt honor-bound to give them a voice when, in his early twenties, he entered the genteel University of Virginia to pursue a master's degree in English. He published three short stories in school publications during the mid-1970s; then, with the help of his advisor James Alan McPherson, a member of The Atlantic's editorial board at the time, he landed his first Atlantic piece. The story was "Trilobites," and it begins:
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 café.
I see a concrete patch in the street. It's shaped like Florida, and I recollect what I wrote in Ginny's yearbook: "We will live on mangoes and love." And she up and left without me—two years she's been down there without me. She sends me postcards with alligator wrestlers and flamingos on the front. She never asks me any questions. I feel like a real fool for what I wrote, and go into the café.
The speaker is Colly, a young man whose old, familiar world is collapsing around him. His father's death has not only cut him off from his past, but threatens to cut him off from his future: without Pop's guiding hand, the family farm is failing, and Colly's mother plans to sell it. Meanwhile, Ginny's return —she is back from college for a visit—is dragging up painful memories of their broken love, only emphasizing to Colly the passage of time and the loss of his youth. He is a man apart, driven to isolation by a history over which he has had no control, and he faces a choice: to play out his lonely life with the hand he has been dealt, or to cut and run.
"Trilobites" is, in this sense, a classic coming-of-age story, but Pancake flips the model on its head. Colly does not leave and then come back, the chastened prodigal son; he goes back, as it were, seeking answers to his dilemma in the history of the land and his family, and then decides that his salvation lies in escape. The density and depth of Pancake's memory—or, rather, Colly's—can astonish.
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 the 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.
In the end, Colly decides to follow the old Teays riverbed westward out of the mountains, hopping a freight car just as his father did years ago. But unlike his father, he will not come back. The final passage of the story finds Colly alone at night, resting beside the train depot, Ginny forgotten, the farm sold, the lessons of his father's "mistake"—his return to the hill country—fresh in his mind. It reads like an exhalation:
I get up. 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.
One can search through all of Pancake's works and find none that better represents him. Everything that would come to characterize his art—the voice, alternately idiomatic and literary; the preoccupation with dead fathers and lost loves; and the lurking sense that the past holds sway over the present—every bit of it is there, even in those spare opening lines. (In this light, the comparison to Hemingway appears particularly apt: both men seemed to emerge fully formed as writers.)