Breece D’J Pancake was a West Virginian and a fiction writer, notably in that order. He wrote only twelve short stories – published posthumously as The Stories of Brecce D’J Pancake – in his brief twenty-six years on Earth, each of them populated with the piercing, beautiful, and often haunting characters of his beloved state. As a fiction writer, Pancake was a ruthless observer who achieved the rare universality in his writing that only comes from penning specifically un-universal characters; but as his mentor James Alan McPherson points out, “His ambition was not primarily literary: he was struggling to define for himself an entire way of life, an all-embracing code of values that would allow him to live outside his home valley in Milton, West Virginia” (10). Unfortunately, Pancake’s quest to fulfill this ambition was cut short in 1979 when he committed suicide, an incident shrouded in controversy that still raises questions about the troubled state of Pancake’s mental health more than three decades later.
While Pancake was often described as “a lonely and melancholy man” (McPherson 9), he was never formally diagnosed with a mood disorder. However, literary accounts of his life strongly suggest he suffered somewhere on the broad spectrum of affective disorders, and there is some speculation that his suicide at the age of 26 was partially the result of a psychotic break (McPherson 17-18). Whatever the extent of his disorder, a close reading of Pancake’s fiction reveals themes that are closely related to the type of madness often correlated with creative thought.
The first of these themes is the pervasiveness of extreme isolation. Collectively, Pancake’s protagonists are lonely people full of a hard-spirited otherness. As Pancake scholar Thomas Douglas notes, “Pancake’s fictional landscape is peopled with . . . truckdrivers, unemployed miners, tramps, paroled convicts, runaways, farmers, fatherless sons, hardened men, and harder women” (381). When one reads these characters, one recognizes a certain hopelessness at their collective core: they are different, somehow set apart from the people who fill the world around them; and that isn’t going to change anytime soon. Because of this isolation, many of Pancake’s protagonists attach themselves to the mountains of West Virginia themselves, identifying with place over people. Like Colly, the protagonist of Pancake’s most celebrated story, “Trilobites,” Pancake’s characters often communicate with the land as a type of surrogate for the people with whom they feel an irreconcilable detachment:
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. [emphasis added] (25)
Like the characters of his fiction, Pancake often felt extremely isolated from his peers, especially when he spent time as an M.F.A. student at the University of Virginia. The university may have only been across a single state line from Pancake’s West Virginia, but an elitist faculty and student body, with whom Pancake could never identify, ensured that “there was always some outsider bleakness to his daily life, a feeling that he was at the university on sufferance” (Casey 174). Somewhat paradoxically, though, Pancake never ceased trying to make friends with anyone available to him, especially other “constitutional nonconformists” like himself (McPherson 8). While he was able to maintain a handful of deep friendships, his erratic behavior, often exacerbated by heavy use of alcohol, drove him deeper into isolation.
To be sure, alcoholism (or drug addiction) is often strongly correlated with mood disorders, and Pancake certainly explored the idea of alcohol dependency in his fiction. Many of Pancake’s stories are littered with hard-drinking men whose decisions are clearly – and always negatively – influenced by their alcoholism. Bo, the petulant coal mining protagonist of “Fox Hunters,” gets so drunk while sitting next to a campfire that he shoots wildly at a hound dog, so off-target that he nearly kills some nearby men (81). The nameless tugboat-working narrator of “A Room Forever” drowns his isolation with a bottle of Jack Daniels and then violates an under-age prostitute in a particularly haunting scene (58). Similar moments happen in several of Pancake’s other stories as well; but most interestingly, Pancake creates characters who seem to understand the specific, tangible dangers of their own addictions. For instance, the same nameless narrator of “A Room Forever” comments on another poor drunken soul with a surprising amount of wisdom: “The smoke cloud is heavy, but I see her reflection in the mirror behind the bar. From the way her mouth is hanging limp I see she is pretty drunk. I don’t guess she knows she can’t drink her way out of this” [emphasis added] (59).
One can confidently surmise that Pancake drew upon his own relationship with alcohol to be able to flesh out these characters so fully. In a narrative reflection about his relationship with Pancake, McPherson paints a picture of a man who turned to alcohol on most any occasion, but particularly when he was feeling anxious or irritated (13-14). Like most of his fictional characters, Pancake was not a belligerent or rowdy drunk; rather, when he drank, he often retreated into himself, exhibiting a palpable sadness: “Breece Pancake drank a great deal, and when he drank his imagination always returned to the same place. Within that private room . . . were stored all his old hurts and all his fantasies. When his imagination entered there, he became a melancholy man in great need of contact with other people” (McPherson 13). This recognizable, somber introspection and “need of contact with other people” may have been more foreboding than most of Pancake’s acquaintances could have anticipated.
Near dusk on April 8, 1979, for reasons unknown to this day, a drunken Pancake broke into the empty house of a neighbor, and simply sat in the darkness waiting for her to return. When the renter of the home came back and heard Pancake make a noise, she mistook him for a burglar and left the house in fear. Pancake returned to his home – his retreat as mysterious as his entry – and grabbed a gun. “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” (Kadohata 57). His death was mean, tragic, and mysterious, as if it were torn from the pages of his own fiction.
Make no mistake: a preoccupation with death and suicide permeated the world of Pancake’s stories. Sometimes death is explored viscerally through the killing or mutilating of animals, like when Colly from “Trilobites” takes his frustrations out on a turtle, which will later become his makeshift dinner (25-26); or when Buddy from “Hollow” rudely rips the flesh from a dead deer: “He cut across the throat, and . . . something inside the carcass jolted, moved against the knife point. He kept cutting, and when the guts sagged out, a squirming lump fell at his feet. He kicked the unborn fawn aside” (52).
When Pancake dwells on the death of humans, though, he is markedly more sensitive. With a bit of tragic irony, after the nameless narrator of “A Room Forever” has alerted authorities that a girl in a nearby ally has slit her own wrists, the narrator reflects, “Then I think about that girl in the alley, sitting in her own slough, and I shake my head. I have not gotten that low” (60). One has to wonder if Pancake was trying to talk himself down from the precipices of suicide even then. Another fictional moment that proved to be all too true of Pancake’s own life comes when the anxiety-ridden serial killer of “Time and Again” remarks matter-of-factly, “People die so easy” (87).
Despite the clear thematic correlations between Pancake’s fiction and his own crippling struggle with mental health, one must not define Pancake’s work and life by its tragic conclusion. Whether Pancake’s suicide was a premeditated act or it was, as McPherson strongly suggests, the result of a psychotic break aided by alcohol and isolation, we will never know. To dwell on this singular act, though, is to undermine the important work Pancake left behind. As his one-time professor John Casey poignantly writes, “A theme of Breece’s life and stories is the bending of violence into gentleness” (175). In the end, Pancake could not escape the violence that haunted him; but his twelve remarkable short stories remain as beautifully rendered reminders that he fought as hard as he could to do just that.
Casey, John. “Afterward.” The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake. New York: Back Bay Books, 2002. 171-78. Print.
Douglas, Thomas E. “The Story of Breece D’J Pancake.” Appalachian Journal 17.4 (1990): 376-90. JSTOR. Web. 16 Oct. 2012.
Kadohata, Cynthia. “Breece D’J Pancake.” Mississippi Review 18.1 (1989): 35-61. JSTOR. Web. 16 Oct. 2012.
McPherson, James Alan. “Forward.” The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake. New York: Back Bay Books, 2002. 3-19. Print.
Pancake, Breece D’J. The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake. New York: Back Bay Books, 2002. Print.
Nathan Gower is Assistant Professor of English for Campbellsville University. A writer of fiction, poetry, screenwriting, and critical essays, his work has recently been published or exhibited in the Valparaiso Fiction Review, The Baltimore Review, the Birmingham Arts Journal, Louisville Magazine, 94 Creations, Paradigm, Expositions: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Humanities, The London Screenwriter’s Festival, and elsewhere. He is currently working on an interdisciplinary humanities Ph.D. in Aesthetics and Creativity at the University of Louisville. In addition to creative work, his research interests include creative writing pedagogy, contemporary American literature, and intersections of creativity and mental illness. He received an M.F.A in writing from Spalding University. He is a member of the Editorial Board of The Campbellsville Review.