Death of a naturalist: Trilobites and Other Stories

The stories in Breece Pancake’s sole collection are timeless portraits of the American South

American South: Breece Pancake was a realist with a visual sense and a tough wisdom. Nature has a powerful, vividly felt presence in his writing. Photograph: Visions of America/UIG via Getty

American South: Breece Pancake was a realist with a visual sense and a tough wisdom. Nature has a powerful, vividly felt presence in his writing. Photograph: Visions of America/UIG via Getty

Sat, Jun 7, 2014, 01:00


Book Title:
Trilobites and Other Stories


Breece D’J Pancake


Guideline Price:

Publishers are, allegedly, not keen on short stories, and many a writer making his or her debut with a collection apparently has done so by promising that a novel is to follow. That said, volumes of short stories continue to appear. The short story is all-revealing, and its shortcomings are shown no mercy.

Never underestimate a short story. According to one of the United States’ finest writers, Richard Ford, who has mastered both the novel and short-fiction forms, “Short stories want to give us something big but want to do it in precious little time and space.”

Some of the greatest exponents, such as Alice Munro and Alistair MacLeod, and even Ford, tend towards longer stories, but stories are stories.

Few observers would dispute the stature of the American short story. A casual glance at any of the major anthologies devoted to the American short story will confirm the quality and the range. Although many US writers dismiss the notion of regionalism, it is a very important element in American writing.

The writers of the American South have sustained a feel for their native landscape. Nature has always had a powerful, vividly felt presence in narratives often rooted in complex family histories. The tormented individual also features as a constant, torn between private guilt and the burden of religion in the familiar tension of belief and doubt; sin and retribution.

Sombre celebration

The shadow of William Faulkner remains long, as does that of Flannery O’Connor, along with the less savage eloquence of Peter Taylor, Richard Bausch and, of course, Ford. More than 20 years ago a single volume, Trilobites & Other Stories, was initially published in sombre celebration. It was the first and last book from a gifted but troubled writer. Breece D’J Pancake, of Milton, West Virginia, was already dead, having shot himself in April 1979, about six weeks shy of his 27th birthday, while a student at the University of Virginia.

People reckoned he was from New Orleans, judging by his name, or at least the “D’J” part of it. That turned out to be due to a printer’s error made by the Atlantic Monthly when publishing Pancake’s first story, Trilobites. He was amused by the mistake and liked the rogue apostrophe, thinking it made his initials more interesting.

That first story proved an impressive start to a career. Its narrator is a young man, resigned to the inevitable sale of the family farm, what with his father dead and him not being much of farmer. He is fishing for turtles when a local businessman, eager to acquire the place, appears out of nowhere.

A brief exchange takes place before the narrator returns to the house to cook the turtle meat. “I look down the valley to where bison used to graze before the first rails were put down. Now those rails are covered with a highway, and cars rush back and forth in the wind.”

Pancake’s personal tragedy echoes that of another Southern writer, John Kennedy Toole, author of the comic masterpiece A Confederacy of Dunces (1980). Toole’s suicide, at 32, is known to have been caused by his repeated failure to interest a publisher in it. When it was eventually published, 11 years after his death, as a result of his mother’s tireless championing of it, which had eventually won the support of another great Southern writer, the Alabama-born Walker Percy, author of The Moviegoer (1960), Toole was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

But it was not frustration that caused Pancake’s death; most of his stories were published in his lifetime. He had experienced praise; his doubts came from within.

After he died friends recalled that he had distributed his belongings by way of farewell. The raw, mountain landscape of his native county was his stage, and its speech – terse and sharp, dryly witty, often containing its own folksy lore – was his poetry: “Ever notice how only blue lightning bugs come out after a rain? Green ones almost never do.”

At times the wisdom is filtered through terse bitterness. “Love? Love ain’t talk.” An old man curses the still living buddy of his dead son: “God forgive my wore-out soul, but I hope you burn in hell.”

Readers of Ron Rash, Daniel Woodrell and Russell Banks will want to read Pancake’s 12 stories. Their central characters and narrators are thoughtful, as is Colly in the opening, title story; he knows he has failed his father’s legacy, and he has also lost his girl to a smart guy at the Florida college to which she has escaped. He can’t find any trilobites – a type of marine fossil – either.

The mood of the collection then becomes increasingly intense; self-doubt yields to self-hate and loners emerge as truly lost and frightened sons, haunted by having disappointed their fathers. Pancake evokes men who don’t know anything about love and are searching, waiting or sufficiently confused and defeated to feel vindicated by being able to coax a battered engine to start. They hunt the food they eat. Hunting, killing, surviving, existing and waiting – waiting for some kind of life to begin – are his central themes.

His characters are real, seething and suffering. Colly watches through the diner window as his father’s old friend Jim prepares to cross the street. Both men, Jim and the narrator’s dead father, had once been young hobos who had left Michigan to fight in the war. They had shared real adventures, but now Colly’s father is dead and Jim is slowing down. “His joints are cemented with arthritis.”

‘Waiting eats at me’

Alone in a crummy hotel, the narrator of A Room Forever announces: “Because of New Year’s I get the big room, eight-dollar room. But it seems smaller than before; and sitting by the window, looking out on the rain and town, I know the waiting eats at me again.” He heads out into the night and notices a nervous young prostitute looking at him “like she is the Wrath of God or something”. On being approached by an untouchable, perfect young college girl, the boy in The Scrapper studies her as if she were an exotic animal.

She has heard he is related to a gangster and is interested as she is writing a paper on him for what she calls Psych. The boy replies: “He was a cousin of mine – second or third – ever’body’s sort of ashamed of him . . .” He asks what Psych is and then wonders inwardly, “if she collected maniacs the way men collected gamecocks”.

There is a timelessness about the stories. Pancake understood the timelessness of the land. His failed men are both trapped and comforted by the land, nature, the animals they hunt. The writing is muscular, precise, lyric and unforgettable.

Pancake was a realist possessed of a visual sense and a tough wisdom. Compare him to a moth battling the light or just another doomed original from another time, if also the present moment. Either way, he was, and remains, the real thing, true to the majestic literary tradition of the South while also being utterly singular.