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
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
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 naive 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
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
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
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)
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,"
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
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
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
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
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,"
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
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
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."