Breece Is Back
The latest in paper
It has taken just 12 short stories and the two decades since their publication to find Breece D'J Pancake mentioned alongside the likes of Faulkner, Hemingway, and Joyce. But if you've yet to come across his work, it's likely because The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake had been out of print from 1983 until earlier this month, when Little, Brown reissued the collection ($13.95). The new edition is essentially the same as that of the original -- retaining all 12 stories, James Alan McPherson's foreword, and John Casey's afterword -- but with the addition of a second afterword by Andre Dubus III. Another reason that you might not have heard of Breece Pancake: In 1979, at the age of 26, he committed suicide, cutting short a literary career whose greatness can now only be guessed at.
Pancake grew up in a small town in West Virginia, later earning a BA from Marshall University in Huntington. He then taught for two years at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington before enrolling in the MFA program at the University of Virginia. It was there that McPherson and Casey befriended, taught, and, as each admits, later came to be taught by Pancake. Their beautifully written essays are invaluable for an understanding of who he was as a writer and as a complicated -- at times mysteriously impenetrable -- person. The new, second afterword provides a brief account of the tremendous effects that first reading Pancake had on Dubus, who was at the time an aspiring young writer.
Absent the technical snazz and self-conscious craftsmanship that plague so many beginning writers, Pancake wrote stories often depicting people of an impoverished class struggling to stay afloat, financially and spiritually, while living the hard life of Appalachia. He also wrote in a language that could be lean and raw, graceful and poetic in a single stroke. In this way, Pancake had the ability to turn stories into memories. Not memories of well-crafted characters and startling plots, but memories that often appear to cross -- seemingly without effort -- the barrier between art and reality. Their power gives one a sense of being in the privileged company of someone who was truly wise beyond his years.