Flashbacks April 2004

Transcripts of a Troubled Mind

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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.

But Ottie also comes on a mission of atonement. His foster father suspects he is responsible for Bus's injury, and still seethes with rage over the loss of the son who held all his hopes. The accident is the focal event of "In The Dry," but we never get a clear picture of it: Ottie cannot recall what happened. And so the familiar Pancake mission, the excavation of the past in order to gain mastery of the present, is doomed to fail. There can be no resolution: not between Bus and Ottie over Sheila, the sister-lover, and not between Ottie and Old Gerlock, the father who lost his only son. As in "Trilobites" there can only be a decisive break, but in "In The Dry" it is not an escape to freedom, but a flight from the infested past into a barren future:

Outside, the yard is empty, dark. He climbs the ladder into his semi's cab and tries to remember a wide spot by the mill, a place to pull over. The ignition bell rings out, and gears—ten through forward—strain to whine into another night, an awful noise.

It is always tempting to find in an author's work the reflection of his life, but in Pancake's case the parallels are too clear to avoid remark. Born in South Charleston, West Virginia, he grew up in the nearby town of Milton. The family was middle class, though on the poor end of that scale; Pancake's father worked for Union Carbide, which had replaced coal and timber as the town's main employer after World War II. Pancake was close to both of his parents—their numerous letters are affectionate and solicitous, a correspondence among friends—but Pancake led an otherwise solitary life. As a child his quiet and intellectual nature meant he spent many hours alone, often searching the hills around Milton for the fossils which appear so frequently in his stories. As an adult, his isolation took on aspects of depression, false garrulousness, and ultimately self-abnegation, frequently accompanied by heavy drinking.

Pancake entered the University of Virginia in the mid seventies, after college and a few years teaching at a military academy. James Alan McPherson, in his introduction to The Stories, paints him as a perennial outsider there: the ambiguous West Virginian, neither Northern nor quintessentially Southern; the middle-class Appalachian, unable to claim either ennobling poverty or birth into the planter aristocracy.

Pancake quite literally announced himself to McPherson, wandering the hall outside McPherson's office while chanting in a loud voice, "I'm Jimmy Carter and I'm running for president." It was jest, a challenge, and a mask: I'm a southerner, but I'm not who you think I am; let's see if you can find the real me. Pancake's first questions to McPherson were whether he liked to drink, if he played pinball, if he hunted—let's see, professor, if I can find the real you.

The two men shared an ambiguous relationship with their homeland (McPherson is black, and so always an outsider in the South). McPherson came to UVA specifically to try to re-engage the society into which he was born, but which he had left as a young man, making his home in the North. And Pancake, McPherson wrote, was on a similar mission:

Breece Pancake seemed driven to improve himself. His ambition was not primarily literary: he was struggling to define for himself an entire way of life, an all-embracing code of values that would allow him to live outside his home valley...

Pancake sought to engage the university community, but without success—he found himself an outsider among the city-types and southern patricians who made up most of the student body, and consequently he made few friends. Perhaps in response, he adopted a self-consciously "cracker" personality, dressing in shabby jeans and driving a rusty old car around town. He spun wild tales of his supposed poverty and backwoods ways, once claiming to have resorted to eating roadkill to survive. It was an odd, and sad, retreat by someone who so clearly wished to prove himself the equal of the flatlanders who had looked disdainfully for so many years at hill people.

As his career at the university wore on, Pancake became known for giving gifts to any and all who might make his acquaintance. Often these gifts followed a perceived failure by Pancake to live up to his own values regarding friendship. Something as small as an uncomfortable silence might send him into bouts of self-recrimination, prompting him to bestow some small token of apology on the one he felt he had let down. McPherson once received a trilobite.

Pancake was pained by the same losses he heaped upon his characters: his father had died, in September 1975; he felt himself an outsider; he was unlucky in love. (His one serious girlfriend at the university was from Richmond society; her parents vetoed all talk of marriage, dooming the relationship.) McPherson wrote of a "private room" into which Pancake retreated from time to time, particularly when drunk, in which

were stored all his old hurts and all his fantasies. When his imagination entered there, he became a melancholy man in great need of contact with other people. But because he was usually silent during these periods, his presence tended often to make other people nervous."

The real Pancake—the one that, loosened by drink, spoke often of ex-girlfriends and his beloved father and the hills he loved to tromp over—was in that room, but none could enter it, and it is not clear that he truly wanted anyone to. "I always thought that the gifts he gave were a way of keeping people away from this very personal area," McPherson continued, "of focusing their attention on the persona he had created out of the raw materials of his best traits."

Letters Pancake wrote to his mother in his final years suggest he wanted one day to go home, to leave behind the fancier world against which he was testing himself, and whose approval would be the only proof of his success. Then the room would open, and as a free and self-made man, he would take up his history again. It goes without saying that he never made it. He lived, and died, still torn between escape and return, past and future, his home and the wider world.

Twenty-five years later, Breece D'J Pancake's legacy remains unclear. As a writer, he was southern by birth alone, not style. He eschewed the decadent retrospection that characterizes Faulkner, O'Connor, McCullers, and their more recent disciples; the touchstones of his failed South are not Jim Crow and the Civil War, nor the conflict between free spirit and social obligation, but things much older: the land itself, with its isolating hollows and impoverished soil; the Indians who built immense burial mounds in honor of their dead; and the even more ancient seas from which the hills rose.

Thomas E. Douglass, the author of the only serious academic work on Pancake, A Room Forever (the title is the same as one of Pancake's short stories), lists Bobbie Ann Mason, Pinckney Benedict, Cormac McCarthy, Lee Maynard, and Meredith Sue Willis as among those who have been influenced by Pancake's work. But though the opening chapter of Benedict's Dogs of God is a clear homage to Pancake's short story "The Scrapper," beyond that the relationship is less clear. Pancake's voice is so personal, and his works so few, that he cannot be accorded the honor of having founded a "school," as both Faulkner and O'Connor often are.

What Pancake left instead was an honorable ongoing project, yet to be completed by anyone else: to reveal the men and women of Appalachia as fully human—as people as complex, intelligent, confused, articulate, lonely, and loving as the urban and suburban intelligentsia who Pancake surely understood made up the majority of his audience. His Appalachian readers loved him for this display of brass. And they loved that he did not pretty them up, or dumb them down: he wrote in their language, in which a turtle is a turkle, a loose girl is a chippy, and the glowing mist in the trees on the ridge is the willow-wisp, come to spirit them away.

If Pancake has a forebear in his task, it is perhaps the journalist, screenwriter, and novelist James Agee, who in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men took on the same challenge of illuminating the lives of a marginalized people. That Agee, by his own admission within the pages of his 1939 masterpiece, could not but fail only strengthens the impression that the two men shared this impossible goal. James Agee drank himself to death. Breece Pancake, Ishmael of Appalachia, chose the gun.

—Tim Heffernan

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Tim Heffernan is a writer based in New York City. He has also written for Popular Mechanics and Pacific Standard.

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