a review of The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake by Breece D’J Pancake
But I know they can’t run away from it or drink their way out of it or die to get rid of it.
– from “A Room Forever” by Breece Pancake
I recently made a journey to the South. My girlfriend is from Chattanooga and went to college at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro. While we were in her old town visiting friends she’d made while in college, we stayed with her good friend Evan. Evan and I sat up and talked books into the early morning hours, my first night in Murfreesboro. In the morning he gave me a first edition of The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake. I’d read “Trilobites” and “Fox Hunters” several years ago, but there were many stories in the collection that were new to me. I am grateful to Evan for reintroducing me to the writing of Breece Pancake, grateful to have more fully made Pancake’s acquaintance.
Arguably a leading figure in the late seventies’ resurrection of the short story, Breece Pancake deserves to be ranked among the best writers in the genre. His work compares favorably to Hemingway, O’Connor, and Carver. Margaret Atwood was a big enough fan of his to blurb the collection. In it, the six stories Pancake had published in The Atlantic, Antaeus, and Nightwork are combined with six previously unpublished stories. The collection was put together posthumously by editors and presents a relatively complete picture of the writer as he stood at the beginning of what promised to be a tremendous career. Initially released in 1983, The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake earned him a posthumous nomination for the Pulitzer.
The stories throughout the collection share several qualities. They are all set in the West Virginia of the author’s upbringing. They all focus tightly on characters being ground down by the circumstances of their lives. Pancake is a master of creating tension within scenes, in narration, and between characters who continue to labor toward a moment when the tension between their circumstances and their struggles to a head. If you were to combine the ability to paint in regional colloquial speech that Cormac McCarthy seems to nail so effortlessly, with the character sensibilities of Donald Ray Pollock, and the craft to evoke on the level of the sentence that Hemmingway always seemed to be reaching for, you would be approaching the essence of Pancake is doing in these stories. To actually describe Pancake’s work well is something big-name writers have been struggling with for the thirty years since this collection came out: see Joyce Carol Oates’s 1983 review in The New York Times, for one example.
The first edition contains a foreword by Pulitzer Prize-winning author James Alan McPherson, a mentor of Pancake’s, and an afterword by National Book Award Winner John Casey. A reprint of The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake was released in 2002 with an additional afterward by House of Sand and Fog author Andre Dubus III, who claims Pancake as a great influence. Additionally, the University of Tennessee Press put out A Room Forever: The Life, Work, Letters Of Breece D’J Pancake, by Thomas E. Douglas in 2004.
The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake
by Breece D’J Pancake
Little, Brown and Company
This review can be found in our Fall 2013 issue (Vol. 60.1).