Cynthia Kadohata

Breece D’J Pancake

A few years ago, when I first read Breece D’J Pancake’s sto­ries, I knew I had to know more about him. The Atlantic Monthly Press pub­lished his col­lec­tion of sto­ries in 1983, four years after he killed him­self at age twen­ty-six. The col­lec­tion, tense and para­dox­i­cal with star­tling descrip­tions, is writ­ten as if Pancake were pos­sessed by his home state of West Virginia the way you can be pos­sessed by anoth­er per­son. The para­dox is here: these are sto­ries about the pow­er of redemp­tion that are also about the pow­er of sin, sto­ries about estrange­ment and empa­thy, sto­ries about dis­or­der in which every­thing seems to hap­pen for a rea­son, sto­ries about leav­ing that are also–always–about stay­ing.

I went to search for Pancake this year, start­ing out by tak­ing a bus to West Virginia. The way I ulti­mate­ly felt about parts of Breece’s life was the way I also feel when­ev­er I trav­el by road. I can’t tell whether things strike me because they’re so sur­re­al or because they’re so real–the home­less women who sur­prise me when I emerge from a stall at the Port Authority bath­room and find they’ve clus­tered noise­less­ly about my door, wait­ing for me; the lumi­nous White House fill­ing the bus win­dows; the way the radio sta­tions fade into sta­t­ic and the way the sta­t­ic grows into voic­es.

Mark Rance, an inde­pen­dent film­mak­er try­ing to make a movie incor­po­rat­ing both Pancake’s sto­ries and life, meets me at the Charleston, West Virginia, sta­tion. We dri­ve to his house so I can take a nap and show­er before he gives me a tour of part of West Virginia, includ­ing Breece’s home­town of Milton. At his house, Rance keeps piles of arti­cles, sto­ries, and let­ters con­cern­ing Breece. One arti­cle quotes Breece’s moth­er as say­ing that Rance, who nev­er met her son, knows him bet­ter than any­one else. I don’t think that’s true; how­ev­er, Rance has been work­ing on his project for a few years and he may know as much about Breece as any­one.

Breece Dexter Pancake was born in a hos­pi­tal in South Charleston in 1952. His father had start­ed work­ing for Union Carbide Chemicals in 1942, and except for an inter­rup­tion when he was draft­ed dur­ing the Second World War, he worked at Carbide for the rest of his life. Breece’s moth­er says that though her hus­band spent his last twen­ty-five years as a ship­ping clerk and didn’t work direct­ly with chem­i­cals, she could smell chem­i­cals on his breath when he came home every night. He died of mul­ti­ple scle­ro­sis in 1975.

Tucked into the mid­dle of five dif­fer­ent states, nei­ther a part of the North nor a part of the South, West Virginia derives much of its iden­ti­ty from the splen­did Appalachian Mountains. It’s a beau­ti­ful state–sometimes made less beau­ti­ful by strip-mining–of rhodo­den­drons and hon­ey­suck­les and of ridges cut by exu­ber­ant rivers. It’s also a poor, large­ly rur­al state with a low mobil­i­ty rate. Around the time Pancake died, West Virginia ranked forty-sev­enth in the coun­try in medi­an fam­i­ly income and forty-third in life expectan­cy. About sev­en­ty per­cent of the res­i­dents four­teen and over had lived in the same state all their lives, as against a nation­al aver­age of slight­ly more than fifty-five per­cent.

The area between Milton and Charleston is halfway between hilly and flat, with rolling, flow­ing lines, and occa­sion­al clus­ters of hous­es below the hills. Several times as Rance and I tour, we pass sets of wood­en cross­es erect­ed in the fields sur­round­ing us. The cross­es are from twen­ty-five to thir­ty feet high. There are three of them to a set–two small­er ones with a larg­er one in the mid­dle. A man named Bernard Coffindaffer, who says he was being direct­ed by the author­i­ty of God, erect­ed the cross­es in sev­er­al states, includ­ing hun­dreds in West Virginia, where he lives. A few weeks lat­er, I will see the same cross­es in Florida while vis­it­ing with Breece’s moth­er, Helen.

As Rance and I dri­ve, we lis­ten to a taped inter­view he made for a radio doc­u­men­tary on Breece. The inter­view is with anoth­er writer from West Virginia, Mary Lee Settle, who met Pancake when he was a grad­u­ate stu­dent at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville in the late 1970s. Breece was six feet two, with blond hair and blue eyes, and he had long, love­ly fin­gers. Settle found him ele­gant look­ing. “He had a total­ly aris­to­crat­ic, Anglo-Saxon face,” she says. She also says he had an almost para­noid hatred of what he called the aris­toc­ra­cy. She thought he was a nice mid­dle-class boy from Milton who played the hill­bil­ly to some of the peo­ple at Charlottesville. “His judg­ments were almost naïve judg­ments. You know if your clothes fit you were the ene­my, and this was ridicu­lous because Breece’s clothes always fit.”

On the roads off the high­ways there are a lot of No Trespassing signs, a board­ed-up house behind a curve, a cou­ple of Vote Hollins for Sheriff posters on trees, men burn­ing some­thing in their fields, a Jack-in-the-Box sit­ting on the hood of an old car. More cross­es.

Pancake grew up in Milton in a three-sto­ry frame house with a red awning. The house sits just off Highway 60, not far from a Dairy Queen, a Pizza Hut, and the Milton Tri-County Bank. Helen Pancake sold the house in 1985 when she moved to Florida. Today, there are a fake white duck and some duck­lings in the yard out­side. A white can­dle burns in each down­stairs win­dow, I don’t know why. The area has been built up quite a bit in the last few years, shops appear­ing where there had been fields. When Breece was born it was farm­land all around. Breece’s house, homey and well-kept, isn’t what I’d expect­ed hav­ing read his sto­ries, which indi­cate an inti­mate knowl­edge of a par­tic­u­lar­ly mean pover­ty. Class comes up again and again in the inter­views I do. Once, at her home in Spring Hills, Florida, Mrs. Pancake runs her fin­gers across her throat and says, “That just cut me” as she points out a brief review that says her son came from “low­er-class ori­gins.” One friend says Breece was clos­er by her­itage to the class he wrote about than the one he lived in, and that his fam­i­ly had made it into the mid­dle class by the skin of its teeth. A man who’d gone drink­ing in a group with Breece every week referred a cou­ple of times to Breece’s “hum­ble begin­nings.” When I asked him whether he knew the Pancake fam­i­ly was mid­dle class, he looked sur­prised and said, “That’s not what he sold me.” Mary Lee Settle says writ­ers tend to write about either the class above them, as John O’Hara did, or the one below, as she thinks Pancake did. Just about every­one agrees that some of the snob­bier grad stu­dents at the University of Virginia looked down on Breece.

Our next-to-the-last stop is an inter­view with Fred Ball, a sev­en­ty-nine-year old for­mer art teacher of Breece’s and a long­time friend of the Pancake fam­i­ly. His view of Breece is quite benign. He knew Breece as a boy and found him both a good teller of sto­ries and a good lis­ten­er to them. Much lat­er, Rance and I won­der whether the peo­ple who knew Pancake in West Virginia see him dif­fer­ent­ly than the peo­ple in Charlottesville. “From every­thing that I can gath­er he seems to have been sort of qui­eter, well-behaved is the first thing that comes to my mind, but that’s not what I would want real­ly to say. He was qui­eter and more to him­self here. In Charlottesville he seems to have been known for more out­ra­geous activ­i­ty.”

One woman told Rance that Breece implied he rou­tine­ly kept squir­rel meat in his refrig­er­a­tor and that his father had been home­less when Breece was born. Rance thinks the stance Pancake adopt­ed in Charlottesville grew out of the char­ac­ters he was por­tray­ing in his sto­ries. “He real­ly steeped him­self in their world to the point where it’s con­fus­ing whether or not he was of them or just knew every­thing about them.”

Actually, nei­ther Rance nor Breece’s moth­er thinks any­one real­ly knew Pancake.

It’s get­ting dark as we pull up to the ceme­tery where Breece is buried. Rance points his video cam­era around. The ceme­tery is emp­ty. I stand on Breece’s grave, and it’s like the invis­i­ble day­time moon, the way you can’t see him but he still exerts grav­i­ty. All of the graves here are that way. People vis­it them, pulled toward what they can no longer see.

The next day we dri­ve to Hinton, West Virginia, to the house of Charlie, a Vietnam vet Rance says walked right out of a Breece Pancake sto­ry. Rance says Charlie is well read and prone to guard­ed vio­lence.

We get lost and dri­ve an hour up and down two rivers, between hills, by mobile homes and frame hous­es. Hardly any­one seems to have a fence, one piece of prop­er­ty blend­ing into the next.

Charlie lives in a tiny, bright blue house down a dirt road. Laundry hangs under the grey sky, and in back an out­house stands off to the left. Charlie swats at his dog, Lucky, who cow­ers good-natured­ly, as if he’s used to get­ting swat­ted but doesn’t real­ly mind. Heat rush­es into our faces as we go inside. In the liv­ing room, a crooked diplo­ma from West Virginia University hangs on a wall, a pile of jeans sits near the bed­room door­way, and a heater as big as a wash­ing machine chugs away near the front door. There’s no phone, because when Charlie gets drunk he makes too many long-dis­tance calls.

Charlie grum­bles some­thing about “killing this god­damned Baldwin man.” That may be some sort of West Virginia col­lo­qui­al­ism. Years ago, the Baldwin Detective Agency was called in to act as police for the own­ers of coal mines. Charlie explains that he’s feud­ing with a neigh­bor.

He’s an unem­ployed actor–he had a bit part in Matewan–whom Rance has come to film read­ing a Pancake sto­ry called “The Honored Dead,” about a young man who evades the Vietnam draft. A close friend of the man who enlists is killed in action.

As Charlie reads, Lucky roams around out­side with sev­er­al oth­er dogs. Charlie’s forty-two, and his face says he has gone through a lot, but like the faces of many peo­ple who’ve gone through a lot, his reminds me of a child’s–there’s a touch of a child’s puz­zle­ment in his eyes. Toward the end he reads in a soft West Virginian–not quite Southern–accent.

Daylight fires the ridges green, shifts the col­ors of the fog, touch­es the brick streets of Rock Camp with a red­dish tone. The street­lights flick­er out, and the traf­fic sig­nal at the far end of Front Street’s yoke snaps on; stop­ping noth­ing, warn­ing noth­ing, rush­ing noth­ing on.

After the read­ing, which is won­der­ful, Charlie ten­ta­tive­ly asks where I live. I tell him Manhattan.

I would be scared to live in New York City,” he says. “You know we lose our courage as we grow old­er.”

I tell him I’m hop­ing it’s the oppo­site. He watch­es as we dri­ve out of sight back down the dirt road.

—–

Mrs. Pancake says that all Breece’s life he seemed to be under time con­straints, that it almost seemed he knew he was going to die but was being pulled toward ear­ly death against his will. His life seems to have accel­er­at­ed some­what dur­ing the few years before his death, espe­cial­ly while he was attend­ing the master’s pro­gram at the University of Virginia. He aged quick­ly, bald­ing and get­ting bags under his eyes. “It was a pro­gres­sive thing,” says a friend. “He was get­ting more morose and a lit­tle fat­ter and bad-tem­pered.… He didn’t look too good.”

Breece had moved out of his par­ents’ house the sum­mer after high school. He attend­ed a cou­ple of col­leges before trans­fer­ring to Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia, where he even­tu­al­ly earned a B.A. in English. While at Marshall, he began sev­er­al of the sto­ries lat­er pub­lished in his col­lec­tion.

He went through a series of trau­mas in the years between high school and grad­u­ate school. The sum­mer before he start­ed col­lege, he found out his father had mul­ti­ple scle­ro­sis. He spent much of his free time with his father, some­times sleep­ing in the hos­pi­tal room and then going direct­ly to school the next morn­ing.

When he was a junior, a woman he’d planned to mar­ry backed out at the last minute. “It’s a won­der he didn’t do some­thing then,” says his moth­er.

He had a cou­ple of car crash­es, one of them while he was drunk. He became best friends with a man named Matthew who was decap­i­tat­ed in a car acci­dent two years after they met. Matthew died the same week as Breece’s father.

Breece had met his friend while both were teach­ing at a mil­i­tary school in Virginia. Pancake spent two years teach­ing, tak­ing writ­ing class­es on the side from John Casey at the University of Virginia. He entered the writ­ing pro­gram there in 1976. UVA had a mar­velous fic­tion fac­ul­ty, includ­ing James Alan McPherson, Peter Taylor, and Casey, who was prob­a­bly Breece’s best friend when he died–in an invalid will he wrote, Pancake named Casey his lit­er­ary execu­tor.

While at UVA Breece lived in a neat, sparse servant’s room set up with a show­er. He slept on a cot and kept his desk in front of the only win­dow. His room was attached to a larg­er home that adjoined a golf course in the posh Farmington sec­tion of Albemarle County, just out­side Charlottesville. His land­lord says Breece was a qui­et-spo­ken rebel who nev­er gave them any trou­ble. The land­lord, Mr. Meade, says Breece would have been against every­thing the golf course stood for. Once he went fish­ing in the dec­o­ra­tive lake on the course, “which was sort of amus­ing since they’re all so fan­cy and see­ing that you real­ly shouldn’t take the fish out of that lake, but he didn’t care about the rules.”

In his life, while he dis­tanced him­self from his imme­di­ate sur­round­ings by doing things like fish­ing in the golf course lake, he also dis­en­gaged him­self from West Virginia. For instance, a cou­ple of years before he died he became a Catholic, though there are few Catholics in Milton. “It’s like becom­ing a Communist,” says Casey, whose house I stayed at in Charlottesville.

Raymond Nelson, who is asso­ciate dean of fac­ul­ty at UVA, shared an office with Pancake more than ten years ago. “One day he casu­al­ly men­tioned that he just was bap­tized and I wasn’t pre­pared for that. And it was sur­pris­ing. I use the word because he does come from a world which meant a great deal to him and he con­tin­ued to talk about it: ‘I’m real­ly from West Virginia. I’m just here. I’m real­ly a region­al writer. I don’t belong here with you. I got­ta go back home. I got­ta go back home.’ And that had divorced him from home in ways that are real­ly quite extreme.”

Breece, whose con­fir­ma­tion name was John, took to reli­gion as intent­ly as he took to every­thing he did. For an English depart­ment class on the Bible, he tabbed and col­or cod­ed an entire Bible. “I think he drove Nohrnberg (his teacher) nuts,” says Casey. “He used to open Nohrnberg’s door, or so I’ve heard, and preach at him, ‘And what would Christ have thought of that!’ ”

—–

The way peo­ple phys­i­cal­ly describe the Pancake they knew at UVA can vary with how they per­ceived his per­sona. While Mary Lee Settle found him ele­gant and aris­to­crat­ic, one of his clos­est friends, Michael Jennings, says he was “rough­hewn and unkempt and the very oppo­site of urbane.” Jennings talked to me over the phone from Alabama, where he works as a news­pa­per reporter. Later, we met briefly in New York.

Until he had an oper­a­tion, Pancake walked with a limp that may have been caused by an old piece of glass in his foot, and he often wore a cap or a flop­py hat, a flight jack­et, and a belt with a huge met­al buck­le. Nearly every­body I talked to com­ment­ed on his phys­i­cal pres­ence. You couldn’t ignore him, says Nancy Ramsey, who went out with him a few times. “He was so dif­fer­ent from all these mealy-mouthed lit­tle English grad­u­ate stu­dents. There was Breece, com­ing down the hall with his cow­boy boots click­ing and stomp­ing.”

Though peo­ple saw him dif­fer­ent­ly, cer­tain char­ac­ter­is­tics crop up repeat­ed­ly in their descrip­tions of his per­son­al­i­ty. He played roles, or exag­ger­at­ed cer­tain aspects of him­self. He felt an attrac­tion to vio­lence but was at heart a gen­tle man. Though he did his share of “bad” things, he was a good man–in a let­ter to Mrs. Pancake, one per­son said Breece pos­sessed an almost des­per­ate sense of good­ness. He was intense, an abso­lutist. And he was rugged, adven­tur­ous, and close to the earth.

McPherson says Breece got into brawls in bars. Jennings says he once used his belt and buck­le as a heli­copter to ward off some thugs who were con­fronting him. Casey says he once built some sort of smoke­less fire when he need­ed to keep warm and avoid detec­tion at the same time. A friend says Breece found a dead rab­bit on the road one day, and see­ing that it was a fresh kill, he skinned it and cooked it at home. Everyone said he hunt­ed, some say­ing he hunt­ed a lot.

Though his moth­er does say he hunt­ed when he was younger, the above activ­i­ties are most­ly unwit­nessed. Neither Rance nor I has talked to any­one in Virginia or West Virginia who hunt­ed with him or saw him in a brawl or saw him eat squir­rel or rab­bit meat. Casey says, “I’ve seen him with a squir­rel in his hand. He was good at this stuff for real.” I believe he was good at this stuff for real. But I guess I also think he exag­ger­at­ed it or pushed it. Once Breece told Jennings that he’d been so hard up while attend­ing Marshall University that he cooked a cat in the oven and ate it. The oven smelled so bad after­wards that no one could use it. Jennings thinks it’s con­ceiv­able Breece did cook a cat–he was stub­born and didn’t want to take mon­ey from his par­ents. On the oth­er hand, he says, Breece some­times test­ed the lim­its of people’s gulli­bil­i­ty. No one can know for sure how far he test­ed even the peo­ple he loved. Also, I think Breece, who Ramsey says “def­i­nite­ly want­ed to please,” would have exag­ger­at­ed an aspect of him­self which so obvi­ous­ly pleased his friends. Sometimes when peo­ple are telling me about the brawl­ing adven­tur­er side of Pancake, I hear a par­tic­u­lar type of appre­ci­a­tion in their voic­es that says to me this is some­thing they espe­cial­ly want to see in him.

Rance thinks Pancake was on stage near­ly twen­ty-four hours a day. “He prob­a­bly dropped his guard but maybe you’d nev­er notice it.”

Both Jennings and Raymond Nelson talk of Breece’s tough­ness and “hill­billi­ness”; then, with­out prod­ding, they add that they think the stance was real.

Says Nelson, “He’s a big brash guy, pow­er­ful, but he felt very often uneasy in a place like this (UVA) or felt he should feel uneasy. So he assert­ed him­self that way, and of course one of the things he learned here–God knows how well he learned it–is that he could sur­vive. He could func­tion, he could tri­umph even, in a place like this. But there was always that–I think it’s real–that ‘I’m just a hill­bil­ly from West Virginia. To hell with you’–that kind of thing as a way of putting his own defens­es up, and estab­lish­ing who he was and his own integri­ty and so on.”

While at UVA, Pancake sold two sto­ries to The Atlantic, and Casey says there was a gang of super­star grad­u­ate stu­dents who admired him a lot. Also, he and Jennings both won pres­ti­gious fel­low­ships from the uni­ver­si­ty, and both taught under­grad­u­ates.

But Jennings says that because Pancake was rough­hewn and unkempt, “the peo­ple who set great store by being the oth­er way–and that includ­ed many of the grad­u­ate students–tended to shun him and make fun of him behind his back, and he was aware of that.”

Pancake dealt with some of the stu­dents by try­ing to get an edge on them, unset­tling them. Jennings says, “He could march at you down a hall­way just glar­ing straight at you and as you were pass­ing, snarl some­thing under his breath like, ‘Ain’t you a cute son of a bitch.’ It could be very unset­tling if you didn’t know him.” But he could also be gen­tle. “As with every qual­i­ty with Breece, you also had its oppo­site.”

An out­sider in his life, Pancake also wrote most pow­er­ful­ly about out­siders. On the front page of the New York Times Book Review, Joyce Carol Oates called Pancake a writer of extra­or­di­nary gifts who “iden­ti­fied so intense­ly with the coal-min­ing and farm­ing area of West Virginia in which he was born that he could not have failed to iden­ti­fy with its slow dying as well.” Actually, he wasn’t born in a coal-min­ing area, but there’s no doubt he iden­ti­fied with the min­ers. He had a par­tic­u­lar inter­est in the work­ing class and the poor, and a par­tic­u­lar inter­est in the way they made their liv­ings. In “Hollow,” one of the sto­ries The Atlantic pub­lished, the pro­tag­o­nist is a coal min­er. The sto­ry opens with a descrip­tion of the work.

Hunched on his knees in the three-foot seam, Buddy was lost in the rhythm of the truck mine’s relay; the glit­ter of coal and sand­stone in his cap light, the set­ting and lift­ing and pour­ing. This was noth­ing like the real mine, no deep tun­nels or mantraps, only the set­ting, lift­ing, pour­ing, only the light-flash from caps in the relay.

When I read that, I have no spe­cif­ic idea what he’s talk­ing about, but I get a clear sense of the rhythm of the work, the feel, the way points of light and nois­es and move­ments mix togeth­er. McPherson calls him an empopath, a word he made up for those who under­stand oth­er peo­ple and things there’s no way they could under­stand. Pancake was part of McPherson’s mag­net­ic field of peo­ple he had an attrac­tion to. McPherson, who is black, found Charlottesville racist. Once he stopped to help a white cou­ple push their stalled car, and before he knew it they had stopped push­ing and stepped to the side and start­ed giv­ing him orders. He says some of his stu­dents did not like to sit on the grass in pub­lic with him. “I didn’t have to explain cer­tain things to Breece as a white per­son. Those things were under­stood. And that’s the most com­fort­ing thing in the world when you can say, instead of say­ing ‘you know,’ the per­son does know.”

And how did the empopaths in the world get that way? McPherson says, “They come from the strangest places.” Later he quotes from Uncle Tom’s Cabin: “They just grew.” McPherson, who won a Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur Fellowship in the years since Breece died, talked to me on the phone from his home in Iowa. He teach­es at the Iowa Writers Workshop.

Jennings doesn’t think Pancake ever con­scious­ly put on a per­sona. He believes that every­thing his friend was grew from inside. I think he sums up best the way I’ve come to see Breece’s rugged side, the side that under­stood hunt­ing and coal min­ing and brawl­ing. “It was instinc­tu­al on his part. I don’t think it was some­thing con­scious­ly con­trived, cer­tain­ly not in any cold cal­cu­lat­ing way. He sim­ply plugged in emo­tion­al­ly and in terms of the way that his per­son­al­i­ty devel­oped to the deep­er roots of his own her­itage. And those roots bore fruit again I think through him, in his sto­ries but also in his life to a large extent. So I don’t see him as hav­ing any sort of con­trived per­sona. I see his per­son­al­i­ty as an expres­sion of the same forces that made him the writer he was.”

Several times as we talk, McPherson places Breece in a cul­tur­al con­text. He says he doesn’t think Breece could have killed him­self, in part because of Breece’s rugged­ness. He ques­tions whether most people’s val­ues today extend beyond the iden­ti­ties the cul­ture assigns them, whether most peo­ple can be con­sis­tent when cul­tur­al props–the right clothes and shoes and jobs–are pulled out from under them. “I think prob­a­bly that’s the only real test in life, whether you can impro­vise when you can’t hear the music any­more, when the props are not there. The beat, the down­beat, the rhythm, the sense of self, has to be inside of you, and I think that in this cul­ture the sense of self is always com­ing from the out­side, now, espe­cial­ly. And so you get peo­ple who are what’s called mass men, who go with the fash­ion of the crowd. That’s why I said Breece couldn’t have killed him­self, because the whole pat­tern of his life was from the inside and not from fash­ion.”

—–

Just as it’s hard to sep­a­rate the writer from the per­son, it’s also hard to draw the line between a teacher of Pancake and a friend. Asked whether he saw a dif­fer­ence between a men­tor and a friend, McPherson says, “Not in writ­ing, I can’t see that.”

None of Breece’s friend­ships was sim­ple. His friend­ship with Casey seems to have been espe­cial­ly com­pli­cat­ed and volatile, Breece exhibit­ing occa­sion­al flash­es of anger. He got furi­ous from time to time over mis­un­der­stand­ings. “I don’t think we ever seri­ous­ly dis­ap­proved of each oth­er, which is one kind of up and down friend­ships can have, and the oth­er is mis­un­der­stand­ings,” says Casey. “Ours were almost all mis­un­der­stand­ings.” Breece hat­ed one grad­u­ate stu­dent with an inten­si­ty that star­tled Casey, until he real­ized the source of the hate was that Casey paid too much atten­tion to the stu­dent. Breece want­ed Casey’s com­plete atten­tion, though in fact his teacher spent more time with him than with any­one out­side of his (Casey’s) fam­i­ly.

Jennings says rela­tion­ships with Breece tend­ed to be very close and pri­vate and that he didn’t inter­mix one rela­tion­ship with anoth­er. “If the lines threat­ened to cross like the line between his rela­tion­ship with me and his rela­tion­ship with (his girl­friend), for exam­ple, he could lash out in a way that was just a warn­ing real­ly that that wasn’t his way. He didn’t want one big hap­py group. He want­ed a series of close but very pri­vate rela­tion­ships.” But once he was your friend you knew “come hell or high water he would stay your friend.” He was either intense­ly your friend or intense­ly not.

Breece met his girl­friend in 1977. He want­ed to mar­ry her, but she was unde­cid­ed. She was two years old­er, and Breece was her first boyfriend. Currently, she teach­es at a mil­i­tary insti­tute in Virginia. She declined to speak with me. To put it mild­ly, Pancake was old-fash­ioned about women–chauvinistic would prob­a­bly be more accu­rate. His moth­er says he would not remain in a rela­tion­ship where a woman was sleep­ing with him, because he didn’t respect that. He didn’t believe women should sleep with men they didn’t know very, very well, though on week­ly out­ings at a bar he spoke horni­ly of want­i­ng to sleep with women. It was women–ladies–who were not sup­posed to sleep with men. He was appalled when a date brought birth con­trol and a tooth­brush when they went out, and he was even more appalled anoth­er time when some­one told him she’d had an abor­tion. Mrs. Pancake says he was a per­fect gen­tle­man with women. Nancy Ramsey says he was “good-man­nered,” “hon­or­able,” “proud,” and “court­ly.” “It’s impor­tant to men­tion court­ly,” she says.

The rela­tion­ships in Breece’s sto­ries are as com­plex as those in his life were, albeit in dif­fer­ent ways. Mary Lee Settle feels that in his writ­ing peo­ple are most alive when they’re alone. When they’re togeth­er, “I just want­ed one of those peo­ple one time, you know, to be with anoth­er per­son they weren’t either hit­ting or screw­ing.” When they are alone, she thinks, “they begin to love, but what they’re lov­ing is a place.”

In “Trilobites,” one of Pancake’s best sto­ries, a young man’s father has died, his moth­er is about to sell their farm, and the narrator’s girl­friend, Ginny, has gone away to col­lege and found a new boyfriend. The nar­ra­tor sits alone on a trac­tor in the blight­ed cane fields his moth­er will soon sell.

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 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.

I both agree and dis­agree with Mary Lee Settle. It’s true that the char­ac­ters often lack ten­der­ness when they’re togeth­er, but it’s more through inar­tic­u­late­ness than mean­ness. Also, the screw­ing and hit­ting scenes are among his most pow­er­ful. Later in “Trilobites,” the nar­ra­tor and Ginny climb into an aban­doned rail­road sta­tion one evening. Ginny is in town on vaca­tion. The nar­ra­tor, Colly, still loves her, and the scene in the sta­tion moves from his attempt to be close to her, to his anger expressed through sex, to a time his father whipped him with a black snake, and back to want­i­ng close­ness again.

I slide her to the floor. Her scent ris­es to me, and I shove crates aside to make room. I don’t wait. She isn’t mak­ing love, she’s get­ting laid. All right, I think, all right. Get laid. I pull her pants around her ankles, rut her. I think of Tinker’s sis­ter. Ginny isn’t here. Tinker’s sis­ter is under me. A wash of blue light pass­es over me. I open my eyes to the floor, smell that tang of rain-wet wood. Black snakes. It was the only time he had to whip me.

Let me go with you,” I say.…

In the scene, Ginny’s arm is bleed­ing from climb­ing through a bro­ken win­dow, and her head is lying in splin­ters of paint and glass. It’s one of my favorite scenes from Pancake’s sto­ries. One of the things I admire about his work is not its actu­al vio­lence, but the sense of brood­ing men­ace, the way the vio­lence some­times hangs sus­pend­ed in the air above each word. And I admire the way the con­tra­dic­tions cre­ate some­thing more pow­er­ful than con­cor­dance would. There are a few sto­ries about the escape from rur­al pover­ty that own­ing a car promis­es, yet two sto­ries where peo­ple die in car acci­dents, and anoth­er where one of the main char­ac­ters has been dis­abled in a wreck. Pancake writes in hard prose but his sto­ries are full of fog and mist and shift­ing col­ors. In “Trilobites,” there is an immense sense of the geo­log­ic past, though the sto­ry is writ­ten in the imme­di­a­cy of the present tense.

Nelson says Breece con­ceived of things in vio­lent ways and pos­sessed a the­o­log­i­cal imag­i­na­tion. “He saw a sense of the capac­i­ty of human beings for vio­lence as some­thing real. He had a sense of–I’m not sure it’s evil, although there’s evil in those sto­ries, too, but what­ev­er it is that’s orig­i­nal sin or what bap­tism doesn’t con­quer is con­stant­ly break­ing out.”

In the after­word he wrote to Pancake’s col­lec­tion, Casey says that a theme of Breece’s life and sto­ries is the bend­ing of vio­lence into gen­tle­ness. He strug­gled to be a gen­tle per­son. “You’re try­ing to pluck out the shrap­nel sliv­ers of your upbring­ing,” Casey tells me. “It’s a very dif­fi­cult thing to do and very few peo­ple ever get around to it. Chekov has this won­der­ful pas­sage in a let­ter where I think he’s talk­ing in the third per­son, but he means him­self. He said imag­ine a man try­ing to dri­ve out all the rem­nants of hav­ing been a serf and become at last free … some­thing like that. It’s a won­der­ful pas­sage, and to some extent, Breece spent a lot of time pick­ing out the rem­nants of his for­mer admi­ra­tion of vio­lence, because he did admire it a lot.”

Why admire vio­lence? “Because it’s admirable,” says Casey. “There’s a lot to admire in vio­lence. I mean hell, it’s just like there’s a lot to admire in cocaine. You know if it were hor­ri­ble no one would do it or use it.”

But the vio­lence is not with­out its price: iso­la­tion, lone­li­ness, empti­ness, estrange­ment from oth­er peo­ple and from your­self. A moral code, a sense of hon­or, per­me­ates Pancake’s best work. Though some read­ers find the sto­ries nihilis­tic, Casey believes there’s a def­i­nite but implic­it sense that peo­ple are pun­ished for doing things wrong. “Because it’s implic­it I could be chal­lenged on it, and they’d say okay read the sto­ries word for word, where do you find any­thing that is say­ing absolute­ly flat out how to be good. And you could read them as nihilis­tic. It would be per­fect­ly pos­si­ble to take those sto­ries and inter­pret them as say­ing noth­ing means any­thing and life is shit. But I don’t think that’s what he’s say­ing. I think the anguish is, it’s not that life is shit, it’s why, why am I sep­a­rat­ed from the good. Which is a very dif­fer­ent anguish. It’s not despair. It’s more, in a fun­ny way it’s much hard­er than despair. Because if you despair, that’s it, that’s the ball game, gang. But feel­ing sep­a­rat­ed from what’s good … you have to keep on.”

Breece once sent his moth­er a let­ter describ­ing a dream that seems to encap­su­late the play between vio­lence and gen­tle­ness in his life.

Last night I dreamed of the “hap­py hunt­ing ground.” I passed through a place of bones that looked human, but weren’t–the skulls were wrong. Then I came to a place where the days were the best of every sea­son, the sweet­est air and water in spring, then the dry heat where deer make dust in the road, the fog of fall with good leaves. And you could shoot with­out a gun, nev­er kill, but the rab­bits would do a lit­tle dance, all as if it were a game, and they were play­ing it too. Then win­ter came with heavy pow­der-snow, and big deer, hors­es, goats and buffaloes–all white–snorted, tossed their heads, and I lay down with my Army blan­ket, made my bed in the snow, then dreamed with­in the dream. I dreamed I was at Fleety’s, and she told me the bones were poor peo­ple killed by ban­dits, and she took me back to the place, and under a huge rock where no light should have shown, a cave almost, was a dog­wood tree. It glowed the kind of red those trees get at sun­down, the buds were pur­ple in that weird light, and a mad­man came out with an axe and chopped at the skulls, try­ing to make them human-look­ing. Then I went back to the oth­er side of both dreams.

—–

Pancake’s suc­cess with The Atlantic had done lit­tle to reas­sure him about his future. He’d had many jobs, includ­ing unload­ing trucks, teach­ing, and con­struct­ing a road, and he envi­sioned a future of teach­ing col­lege or high school or work­ing for a news­pa­per. Once, his moth­er says, he said he’d like to be a fire­man, and Casey says he thought about doing expose arti­cles. “He was a Savonarola. Savonarola was the guy who want­ed to reform Italy. Breece was a reformer.” He had a zeal about good­ness and moral­i­ty, but Casey says he also pos­sessed the cru­cial qual­i­ty of imag­i­na­tive sym­pa­thy that kept his zeal in check–his writ­ing was moral with­out being mor­al­iz­ing.

Mary Lee Settle is less sat­is­fied with the sto­ries. She thinks they’re won­der­ful, but her crit­i­cisms stem in part from the thought of those he might have writ­ten. “He nev­er grew out of what Tolstoy called the wound,” she says. “Tolstoy said you’re wound­ed into writ­ing, but you mustn’t write until the wound is healed.”

—–

In Florida the Greyhound sta­tions I stop at and bus­es I take are filled with migrant farm­work­ers, their tanned hands cov­ered with black scratch­es. Some of them car­ry boom box­es wrapped care­ful­ly in tow­els, oth­ers car­ry only used plas­tic gro­cery bags. Along the high­way as we dri­ve, fil­a­ments of Spanish moss drift from the trees, like Christmas tin­sel grown dull and grey.

Mrs. Pancake picks me up at a gro­cery-bus sta­tion. It’s about nine-thir­ty p.m.–the bus is an hour late–and she says she was feel­ing ner­vous wait­ing out there like that. “I don’t get out much of a night,” she says.

We’re both friend­ly and wary, maybe also relieved. We haven’t hit it off well in our brief phone con­ver­sa­tions, but she invit­ed me to stay with her, any­way. She said she want­ed to do a col­lab­o­ra­tion, so that we could write about “lit­tle fun­ny inci­dents” hav­ing to do with Breece, to show that he was hap­py and nor­mal (“what­ev­er you mea­sure nor­mal by,” she lat­er says). She also want­ed me to “use” some of his poet­ry, which is most­ly from high school, most­ly bad. I decline on both points, and on the sec­ond, I think to myself, “Breece wouldn’t want his poems pub­lished.” I’ve begun to catch myself doing what I keep hear­ing oth­ers do, con­sid­er­ing what Breece may or may not have liked.

Mrs. Pancake, six­ty-sev­en, is pret­ty, wear­ing a match­ing sweater and skirt, pink pol­ish on her toe­nails. Since she thinks the best way to get to know peo­ple is to eat with them, she feeds me turkey and fresh fruit at her house in Spring Hills. Over the phone she has said some of Breece’s things were laid out “just as if he were com­ing back home tomor­row,” but noth­ing is appar­ent. The house is bright and love­ly and reminds me of a fos­ter home I stayed in once, neat and pre­dictable: sup­per at a cer­tain time, ice trays full. There are two bed­rooms, two bath­rooms, neu­tral car­pet­ing, an auto­mat­ic garage door. The two days I’m here, the radio is on con­stant­ly dur­ing wak­ing hours.

In the sec­ond bed­room, where I will stay, is a mod­el ship Breece made, the 1925 Underwood type­writer he used, a pic­ture he paint­ed, some old albums in the clos­et, his desk, books. At three that morn­ing as I try to sleep, I feel an impulse to get up and peek out the front win­dow, to try to get my bear­ings. Instead I feel scared and pull the cov­ers over my head. Perhaps because of the sud­den­ness of Pancake’s death, sev­er­al peo­ple have talked of invok­ing his ghost or talked of hav­ing had a sense of his pres­ence. Mrs. Pancake men­tions to me now and then that she feels he’s with us as we talk; when his book jack­et first arrived in the mail, she phys­i­cal­ly felt his hand on her shoul­der. Charlie, the Vietnam vet, talked to a cousin of Breece’s who believed he was in touch with his ghost. Rance saw a hitch­hik­er once and had a feel­ing it was Breece; he didn’t stop. Casey writes in his after­word that he heard Pancake speak sev­er­al times after the sui­cide, though he also told me he has had sim­i­lar expe­ri­ences when some­one he knew died sud­den­ly. Of the para­nor­mal activ­i­ty, Rance says, “It is one of the weird things about the whole project that’s been fair­ly con­sis­tent.”

Rance also says Mrs. Pancake told him there had been five sui­cides, includ­ing her son’s, in her and her husband’s fam­i­lies com­bined, but she didn’t think this had any­thing to do with Breece’s death. I don’t know what to think. Lying in bed, it just feels weird how pre­dictable the house seems but how unpre­dictable Mrs. Pancake’s life has been.

—–

Displayed in the liv­ing room is a hard­cov­er copy of The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake. Inside, Mrs. Pancake has made hand­writ­ten notes, com­ment­ing on the fore­word, or repeat­ing com­ments oth­ers have made to her about the sto­ries. Mrs. Pancake says one of her daugh­ters took a razor to the book and cut out both the fore­word and after­word because until the Pancake fam­i­ly read the col­lec­tion they hadn’t known that Breece had put the gun in his mouth when he’d killed him­self.

In a bas­ket in the liv­ing room Mrs. Pancake keeps reviews and arti­cles about and by Breece (he used to write for a news­pa­per for $25 an arti­cle) and stacks of mail. She answers every let­ter she gets con­cern­ing her son.

Mrs. Pancake burned some of Breece’s effects while she was in West Virginia. Some of the things she want­ed to burn because she could smell Breece’s hair and body oils on them. Also gone is cor­re­spon­dence from Breece’s girl­friend, who asked that her let­ters be destroyed.

Most of the let­ters Mrs. Pancake has retained are innocu­ous. In one, Breece pro­tec­tive­ly instructs his par­ents not to fill out part of a finan­cial aid form. “It’s none of their busi­ness,” he writes. One let­ter men­tions sev­er­al old friends who have mar­ried, and Breece won­ders why he hasn’t. “It’s like I’m frozen in time by writ­ing.” There’s a let­ter from Raymond Nelson describ­ing Breece as big and full of pres­ence, and total­ly and unself­con­scious­ly good, a note from McPherson thank­ing Mrs. Pancake for some choco­late chip cook­ies. I don’t see any­thing from Casey, but they cor­re­spond regularly–he has dozens of let­ters from her, which she always signs “Helen Pancake” rather than “Helen”–there’s that reserve about her.

Mrs. Pancake has arranged all the let­ters in piles by year for me to look through. She sits on a chair near­by, occa­sion­al­ly talk­ing and weep­ing. She seems to remem­ber every let­ter she has or hasn’t got­ten, say­ing things like “He nev­er wrote me, even after Breece died” or “She wrote me twice, and very nice let­ters.”

In pic­tures in a pho­to album Breece is strik­ing, both as a child and a grownup, trans­formed from win­some boy with huge blue eyes to exhaust­ed-look­ing young man.

—–

Helen Frazier met her future hus­band, Clarence “Bud” Pancake, in Kenny’s Dairy Bar in Hurricane, West Virginia, in August of 1939. They mar­ried that December on a dare from anoth­er cou­ple. Because she was sev­en­teen and a half, she stayed at home for a bit and kept the mar­riage a secret. “I was the first in my class to mar­ry, and the first to lose my hus­band,” she says.

Mrs. Pancake had a daugh­ter eigh­teen months after she mar­ried and a sec­ond daugh­ter when her first was eigh­teen months old. A year lat­er her hus­band was induct­ed to fight in World War II. She moved close to town because they’d sold the car–they couldn’t get gas any­way. She would walk through town with her chil­dren Donetta and Charlotte in their strollers, “lead­ing one and push­ing one.” Before he left for the war, Clarence was a social drinker; when he came back he was a heavy one. He didn’t quit until years lat­er, when Breece was two years old.

Mrs. Pancake describes her son as a qui­et­ly hap­py boy who liked to be alone, but could have fun with oth­er peo­ple, too. His father taught him about guns and fish­ing, about nature, about the lay of the Teays River. They liked to roam the hills togeth­er. Mrs. Pancake says nei­ther of them enjoyed killing. Mr. Pancake didn’t hunt for deer, but he and his son took tar­get prac­tice in back and did hunt rab­bits and squir­rels. “But they felt bad about it, real­ly they did,” says Mrs. Pancake. Rance says that some­times Breece’s friends would be out camp­ing in a group, and at some point Breece might appear out of nowhere–he’d been out camp­ing alone. That seems to sum him up–a lon­er with friends, or some­one with friends who liked to be alone.

Mrs. Pancake says Breece began drink­ing as soon as he left home. He could become vol­u­ble when he drank with oth­er peo­ple around. “Two drinks and you couldn’t shut him up for two days,” says Mary Lee Settle. When he drank alone, Mrs. Pancake believes, he retreat­ed to “that lit­tle cell in his head” where his char­ac­ters resided. In his room after he died, Casey says there were two emp­ty beer cans and a half-filled can on the desk. “I think it’s true that Breece, on some days, could drink a six-pack and it would have very lit­tle effect on him,” Casey says. “Other days he would have two beers and he would be loaded. And that’s a very dan­ger­ous thing. I even sus­pect that that’s prob­a­bly how he end­ed up shoot­ing himself–he had a cou­ple of beers in a weird mood, and it accel­er­at­ed the weird­ness of his mood, and he killed him­self.”

At dusk on April 8, 1979, Breece, for rea­sons no one knows, entered a cot­tage on the Meades’ prop­er­ty. The Meades rent­ed the cot­tage to a golfer. No one was home, but Breece went inside. The golfer’s girl­friend came over with a bag of gro­ceries and was fright­ened by Breece, who told her his name and told her not to wor­ry. He went home and the girl­friend called the police before going over to the Meades’. Mrs. Meade knocked on Breece’s door and told him that the police were com­ing and look­ing for a Breece Pancake. Then he went out­side and shot him­self. His body was found slumped on a fold­ing chair under a fruit tree, his brains on the cot­tage wall.

At the sound of the shot, Mrs. Meade called her hus­band, who had been at a din­ner par­ty. “I came back and my wife said that there had been, that Breece was miss­ing, and I said I’d go look for him, and unfor­tu­nate­ly I found him. We nev­er did find out what hap­pened, but we have a guest cot­tage, and there was a girl out there who was wait­ing for the per­son to whom we rent­ed the cot­tage, and Breece, who was prob­a­bly a friend of his as far as I know, went to the cot­tage. And she thought it was the oth­er boy. And it was just get­ting dark, and he’s a big, tall, beard­ed guy and she scared him, I mean he scared her, and we don’t know if that’s what trig­gered it or not, but she came run­ning over to Mrs. Meade because she was fright­ened. And the next thing Mrs. Meade said she heard the shot.” The police arrived after he found the body.

Donetta Pancake tried to trace the golfer’s girl­friend, to find out what Breece said to her in those clos­ing moments of his life, but she nev­er found her. Breece’s girl­friend, informed of the sui­cide, asked Casey to go see if it had real­ly hap­pened. “It wasn’t a ques­tion of mak­ing sure it was him, it was just, ‘Go see,’ ” says Casey.

Jennings found out about the death a few days lat­er. He saw a map at school giv­ing direc­tions to Mrs. Pancake’s house in West Virginia, but it didn’t say why you might need direc­tions. “And I had a sink­ing feel­ing right then when I saw that.”

During the funer­al, Donetta didn’t want the gravedig­gers to bury her broth­er, so instead she and three of his friends took shov­els and buried Breece, just as he had tak­en a shov­el and helped to bury his father a few years ear­li­er. Several peo­ple were stay­ing at the same motel, and lat­er, says Raymond Nelson, “We got togeth­er and we’re talk­ing about things, and every­body had a kind of sui­cide note from Breece from a cou­ple of weeks ago or a cou­ple of months ago. But none of them seemed that way.… They all had oth­er kinds of expla­na­tions when you got them. It was like he was play­ing with the idea. And that’s anoth­er thing that both­ers me. You get the feel­ing that Breece might have killed him­self just to prove [that he was real­ly going to do it].”

Nelson’s let­ter said some­thing to the effect of, “Don’t waste time mourn­ing. Organize.” A let­ter left to Casey in Breece’s desk start­ed out, “When you read this it real­ly won’t mat­ter any­more …” The let­ter is sort of an impres­sion­is­tic list of mem­o­ries, from the “girl who was dry as beans in bed but full of lush over the phone,” to “break­fasts with wheat-cakes and lemon curd,” to the time his late cousin “dis­patched his brains by a NY lake.” It’s also a tes­ti­mo­ny of love to Casey: “I love you. I love you because when my father and friend were dead you helped me hang on for dear life, told me I could write (and be damned if I haven’t done a pass­ing job).… You’ve fought hard for me John–fought hard for five years, and please don’t think that by my gruff man­ner and ear­ly tem­per I am any less the man for you.”

There were warn­ing signs of Breece’s impend­ing sui­cide, which occurred just one day short of three years after one of his heroes, the singer Phil Ochs, hanged him­self on April 9, 1976. Before he died, Breece had begun to give away many of his things, and Jennings says that in the two or three weeks before his death, Breece had closed off their friend­ship for no appar­ent rea­son. “I saw him once or twice and he was almost hos­tile as I recall.”

I like the way Mr. Meade mis­tak­en­ly said “she scared him” when he meant “he scared her.” Mr. Meade told me that his wife was fond of Breece, but he seems to be the only one who thinks that was true. Breece was in an envi­ron­ment that went against every­thing he believed in. He lived in a small bar­ren room. He had no phone, and no one he was close to lived near­by. McPherson cites the mood of the coun­try in 1979, right before Reagan came to pow­er. He thinks there was begin­ning to be an extreme kind of indi­vid­u­al­ism that negat­ed the idea of com­mu­ni­ty. “I think it was prob­a­bly Breece’s tragedy that he had his trou­ble where it was at a time when that mood was becom­ing a pre­dom­i­nant one. And so that if he did have trou­ble and he did reach out, there was nobody there. It’s the dif­fer­ence between hav­ing a hier­ar­chi­cal sys­tem and hav­ing some­thing I call hor­i­zon­tal. That is, a hier­ar­chi­cal sys­tem val­ue says, All right, I’m on top, what can I do for the nig­gers? What can I do for the peo­ple below me? And a hor­i­zon­tal one says that the only refuge a man in pain has is with­in anoth­er person’s heart; there­fore my heart must be a swing­ing door. And I think it was his tragedy that he had a swing­ing door as a heart but at a time and a place where the pre­dom­i­nant val­ue was hier­ar­chi­cal.”

—–

As Mrs. Pancake dri­ves me to the bus sta­tion, we remem­ber that we have to stop at the library so I can copy some things. She turns the car around, accel­er­ates to eighty-three, and smiles imp­ish­ly at me. It’s been a dif­fi­cult two days for her, hav­ing to talk almost non­stop about her son. Sometimes I can feel her strain­ing from the dif­fi­cul­ty. “I’m going to blow the bugs out of my motor!” she says. “I’m going to blow the bugs out of my car!”

The bus trip to Florida from New York has not been par­tic­u­lar­ly suc­cess­ful. I start­ed out by run­ning through Port Authority and bare­ly mak­ing what turned out to be the wrong bus–I had to call Mrs. Pancake from halfway down and tell her I was going to be sev­er­al hours late. In Florida I ruined one side of a tape of her, and as we dri­ve I remem­ber I’ve left behind my apart­ment keys and warm coat, but I’m scared to tell her until it’s too late. Later, on the way back to New York, I lose my Visa card, two bus dri­vers yell at me, and I have to stay per­fect­ly still because no mat­ter what time it is, when­ev­er I move the man next to me starts talking–what am I doing here? I ask myself over and over.

I still don’t have a clear pic­ture of Breece. Jennings wrote me in a let­ter that none of his friend’s qual­i­ties was so extra­or­di­nary that Jennings would have thought it like­ly any­one would want to write about Breece ten years after he died, had he not died the way he did. He was not, Jennings wrote, grand, trag­ic, or doomed. “He was fun­ny, blunt, pro­fane, loud, sus­pi­cious, prick­ly, a good hater, a good friend, clear­ly tal­ent­ed, clear­ly com­mit­ted to what he was doing.”

At the time I stopped inter­view­ing peo­ple I think I was advanc­ing in halves, the halves grow­ing small­er with each inter­view, so that I would nev­er reach Pancake, just advance, by halves, into infin­i­ty. I don’t think in any case that my goal was quite to know or under­stand him. Because I admired his writ­ing so much, what I’ve want­ed all along is sim­ply to know not why but when it was that he passed from anguish to despair, as if by find­ing exact­ly the moment I could cause some sort of mag­i­cal chain reac­tion, and he would not have died the way he did. I was remind­ed just a lit­tle of that stag­ger­ing scene in one of my favorite short sto­ries, “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” by Delmore Schwartz. In the scene an unhap­py young man dreams he’s in a movie the­ater watch­ing a film of his par­ents’ courtship. As his par­ents are awk­ward­ly mak­ing the deci­sion to get mar­ried, the nar­ra­tor stands up in the mid­dle of the audi­ence and shouts out, “Don’t do it. It’s not too late to change your minds, both of you.” I’m not exact­ly remind­ed of Breece because every­one would like to freeze the moment when he despaired and say, “Don’t do it. It’s not too late to change your mind,” nor because in the scene from the sto­ry the nar­ra­tor in effect is ask­ing for sui­cide. I’m remind­ed of Breece because both he and the narrator–whether roman­ti­cal­ly or real­is­ti­cal­ly depends on your point of view–had a sense of the every­day world as a place of epic stakes.

McPherson thinks Breece was begin­ning to be a great writer.

Casey thinks the sto­ries are “one of the real nodes of artis­tic ener­gy in the last twen­ty years.” I don’t know in any intel­lec­tu­al way what the sto­ries are or aren’t. All I know is that five years after I first read them, such was their pow­er over me that I still heard that voice inside say­ing “Go see him.” Just “Go see.”

~

Cynthia Kadohata is a Japanese American children’s writer known best for win­ning the Newbery Medal in 2005. She won the U.S. National Book Award in 2013. Kadohata was born in Chicago, Illinois. This piece is reprint­ed from Mississippi Review Online Vol 2 Number 11.