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.