Grief and Compassion in “The Collected Breece D’J Pancake”

The stories of Breece D’J Pancake, by their own merit, are remarkably tied to the rural home of their author. Unfortunately, they are also tied to the author’s absence. Honestly, it’s tempting to romanticize this collection of fiction. I still have a copy of the 2002 edition that I stayed up all night reading sometime around 6 years ago. There was something about the scale of history and place against the scale of the individual, about the mix of gravity and triviality in grief that I found energizing at a time when most of my day went to physical labor. I’ve still got that copy after several moves and leaving it in the backseat of cars. It’s creased and soft and stained with coffee.

This new edition from The Library of America, The Collected Breece D’J Pancake, contains the complete collection of stories as they’ve been published since 1984. They’re framed, as in the 2002 edition, by the words of James Alan McPherson and John Casey, two authors who knew and supported Pancake during his brief writing career. But this new edition also includes fragments of five unpublished stories and selected letters from 1972 to 1979, as well as an introduction by Jayne Anne Phillips.

A lot of the discussion around Pancake’s stories treats him as a novelty and his death as a clue to some vital enigma. We tend to romanticize an author who’s committed suicide and it can be easy to ogle with superiority at Appalachia’s foreignness. But we don’t have to condescend or mythologize here. The truth is that Pancake wrote with a distinct clarity and humanity about a place and experiences that are remarkably distant from many readers of short fiction. It’s a gift.

Jayne Anne Phillips, who wrote the introduction to this new edition, has called these stories “an America Dubliners.” The protagonists of these stories are defined by their weaknesses, despairs, and inadequacies. Colly, from “Trilobites,” hesitant between his failing family farm and the outside world that’s leaving him behind. Buddy, holding onto a woman he knows won’t stick around for anything but money. Reva’s anxieties around her pregnancy and incestuous desire for her brother. But their faults are treated the same as any other detail in these stories, as simply part of the whole.

Pancake’s direct prose wards off our judgment. Characters struggle against themselves and either overcome or fail, often seeing their plans of escape close off. Suddenly, when left without options, they find something of their own. Colly finally sees that he can let go of his father’s struggles, that there’s nothing keeping him there anymore. After a day of distraction, Reva wanders into the night and can finally face the grief she’s been avoiding. Buddy, hungover, beaten, leaves his trailer to hunt for meat. In the snow, eating a doe’s liver, he finally decides to strike at the mine.

But the dry, unornamental style of these stories leaves room for a great vibrancy of language and image, as well as dialogue full of humor and gravity, peppered with aphorism and colloquial play. And there’s a lot of silence here. Long moments where the landscape suddenly comes into focus or when the characters find themselves alone with their setting. These are the moments when detail, rather than style, is its own ornament. There are effortless lines like “Between the clouds and the hills hung the sun, moving fast enough to track, making the snow glisten on the branches” and, even more dense with activity:

“…she made her way through clouds of gnats toward the river as the moon drove the darkness from the bottom. From deep in the grasses where the snakes were waking up, she saw fireflies speckling the sky and thought she caught scent of something moist in the dry air.”

Next to the intentional sparseness of Pancake’s writing, the highly detailed introduction of this edition reads as sentimental, even presumptive, although it serves accurately as an introduction to the discussion of the author. Like the inclusion of Pancake’s letters, which are mostly friendly correspondence and may be only useful for biographers, the focus seems to lie on the mystery of this rural person writing fiction, rather than the virtues and flaws of the actual writing. The story fragments, on the other hand, would be interesting to anyone curious about the process of writing fiction. There are only about 19 pages of them, including notes, but they say a lot about a young writer’s dedicated process and, to some, a surprising inclination to experiment.

I read a review of this collection that focused on its near pitch-dark melancholy. That review wasn’t inaccurate. These are dark, mournful stories full of deep grief and cyclic violence and grotesquery. But behind that, protected from the light, is where you find the deep humanity and compassion that’s in so much of it. Fiction is valuable for a lot of reasons, but an important one is to help us see and wonder at each other’s internal workings. It’s worth mourning what such a young and skilled writer could have done with more time, but I’m grateful for this rich book of stories.

The Collected Breece D’J Pancake
by Breece D’J Pancake
Library of America
October 27, 2020