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.)
"Trilobites" is vintage Pancake in another way. It is not a story driven by plot; it is, instead, the transcript of a troubled mind's attempts to come to peace with itself. Again and again, Pancake would return to this form, and each time the crisis is resolved by the main character's breaking away from the past that seems to govern him.
"Hollow," from October 1982, ends in symbolic violence: Bud, abandoned by his lover and slowly dying of black lung, rouses himself a final time, killing a deer in the hills behind the lonely double-wide trailer he calls home. The next day, he will call a wildcat strike at the coal mine that enslaves him—a final desperate and destructive act of freedom. "The Honored Dead," published in January 1981, ends on a more hopeful note. The narrator has spent a long night revisiting the death of his best friend, Eddie, in Vietnam, a fate the narrator avoided by retreating into college. But in the final lines he reaches some sort of peace:
I cannot go away, and I cannot make Eddie go away, so I go home. And walking down the street as the bus goes by, I bet myself a million that my Lundy is up and already watching cartoons, and I bet I know who won.
"Hollow" and "The Honored Dead" are strong stories, and stand on their own as works of art, but if the masterly "Trilobites" has an equal in Pancake's collection, it is "In The Dry," published in August 1978, six months before his death. The title comes from Luke, chapter 23:
For behold, the days are coming in which they shall say, Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bear, and the paps which never gave suck. Then shall they begin to say to the mountains, Fall on us; and to the hills, Cover us. For if they do these things in a green tree, what shall be done in the dry?
The story is in a way a mirror of "Trilobites." Here, the young man has already left home, and the narrative begins with his return.
He sees the bridge coming, sees the hurt in it, and says aloud his name, says, "Ottie." It is what he has been called, and he says again, "Ottie." Passing the abutment, he glances up, and in the side mirror sees his face, battered, dirty; hears Bus's voice from a far-off time, I'm going to show you something. He breathes long and tired, seems to puff out the years since Bus's Chevy slammed that bridge, rolled, and Ottie crawled out. But somebody told it that way—he only recalls the hard heat of the asphalt where he lay down. And sometimes, Ottie knows. Now and again, his nerves bang one another until he sees a fist, a fist gripping and twisting at once; then hot water runs down the back of his throat, he heaves. After comes the wait—not a day or night, but both folding on each other until it is all just a time, a wait. Then there is no more memory, only years on the hustle with a semi truck—years roaring with pistons, rattling with roads, waiting to sift out one day. For this one day, he comes back.
The history is richer here than in "Trilobites," the pain more complex and its sources more various. Ottie is not an orphan but a foster child, a sort of half-son to his adoptive father, and so a sort of half-brother to the true son, Bus. There is no death to cut Ottie free, but a half-death: Bus is alive, but paralyzed. And there is no broken heart to push Ottie into anger and escape, but rather the memory of a doomed love affair to draw him back. Sheila, Bus's blood-sister, still lives on the old homestead, and it is to her as much as anyone that Ottie returns.