The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake
Not long ago a friend asked, "If a new book was discovered by a dead writer, which writer would you want to have written that book?" My first instinct was to say Flannery O'Connor. I cut my literary teeth on her and would trade a pair of incisors to read some resurrected manuscript she'd penned. Still, though, we've got three of her books and lots of notes and letters. There's an army of O'Connor scholars to boot. So, I thought twice and answered, Breece Pancake, a writer I've only recently discovered.
Pancake's one and only book, a collection entitled, The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake, was published posthumously in 1983. It was nominated for a Pulitzer and he was lauded by a pantheon of notable writers including Joyce Carol Oates, Andre Dubus III, and Kurt Vonnegut. There's no reason why I shouldn't have read him sooner. My hunch is that it's because the book is rather quiet. It's introspective and unassuming. It reads like it doesn't really need you.
It's difficult to put your finger on what makes a great writer great or a moving book moving. Hard to say why one book is esteemed while others equally great are not. The authors I like best are mystery-keepers. They write stories that offer clues to a riddle I didn't quite know I was puzzling through. I'm drawn to stories that unsettle. Ones that leave me—that I leave—a bit mystified. Sometimes the best books are the hardest to explain; each time you try, you omit something, and in frustration, thrust the book into a friend's hands and say, "Just read it."(Flannery O'Connor had it right when she said: "A story is a way to say something that can't be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is.")
On the cover of my copy of The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake there's a black-and-white sketch of a fox head accompanied by its shadow. (I'm curious what overhead light is creating that shadow. Maybe some cold sun in an unseen sky.) The fox's eyes are fixed on something we can't see (maybe a rabbit; maybe its own demise). For certain, it's not looking at us. Inside the book you'll find stories that are set in rural West Virginia populated by rugged, downtrodden, grizzled folks. While you'll find plenty of violence woven into the stories, stark and raw, the key that tripped the lock for me was the role that animals play in the book.
Like good writers, animals are secretive, too. We observe them and draw conclusions about patterns of behavior. Scientists follow methods and make claims. There are books and magazines about all kinds of creatures. You could fill a library with texts about dogs. I suspect that people are fascinated by animals because they are not us. They are not burdened by our hopes and dreams, our anxieties, trepidations, and vanities. Animals remind us what it's like to be wild.
Most of the protagonists in Pancake's stories are outcasts. They're awkward in the company of others and more at home on the fringe where a bevy of critters live. On one hand, there are the animals that are killed in the stories: "turkles" (turtles) in "Trilobites," dogs in "Hollow," a rabbit in "The Mark," and squirrels in "First Day of Winter." The narrator in "The Scrapper" recollects grouse-hunting and "...the funny human noises the birds made before they flew, and how their necks were always broken when you picked them up."
On the other hand, there are a number of animals that survive. The closing perspective of "Hollow" is given to a bobcat as he watches and waits for the protagonist to leave. "Fox Hunters" opens from the point of view of an opossum. The fox, in the same story, escapes when the protagonist, Bo, decides to protect it. When asked, Bo explains in a drunken slur, "I's sorry, but I's tryin' to save foxie." The widower in "Time and Again" refuses to slaughter his hogs and comments, "Hogs die hard. I seen people die in the war easier than a hog at a butchering."
The animals are more than simply a part of the landscape; they are entwined with the lifestyle of the people. The sentiments of the characters are transposed onto the creatures. There's a second fox that appears in the collection which, in a "fit of meanness," the character tries to shoot. He misses. That same story, "First Day of Winter," my favorite, ends this way: "The sun was blackened with snow, and the valley closed in quietly with humming, quietly as an hour of prayer."
The strength of this book is in that palpable silence and the sad hope that somewhere somebody is bearing witness to folks who are struggling and unnoticed. That's how I try to write: unabashedly and with a modicum of faith. Pancake's home was rural West Virginia but the breadth of his sweeping empathy knew no bounds.
Perhaps the writer understood that within the primitive is mystery. Through all the rabid violence and feral desperation from a collection of disparate men, it's the moments of calm that resonate.It's a little like cupping your hands into a stream after you've been chased by a bear. Only after your heart stops pounding do you realize how thirsty you are. That's what this book is in your hands. I recommend you sip, not gulp, because it's all you get.
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