Breece D’J Pancake’s Collected Stories (Little, Brown, 1983) are hard, dark stories of life in West Virginia coal mining country. All suggest circumscription, entrapment by social class and ways of life, by generations of defeat and exploitation. Pancake doesn’t highlight political themes in his stories, but one can infer them. Most of the young adult characters, most of them men, live in the troubled shadows of parents and their relationships with their children. In almost every story parents are missing or absent or dead. These characters have few options beyond the coal mines and the small-town jobs available to them. They don’t attend college—it’s not an option for them, and some of them are well aware of what this means for their future. Several stories suggest an awareness of the past through memories and images and relics: fossils in two stories, Indian mounds in another. Only one story has a humorous tone, while the others brim with varying tones of pessimism and bleakness. Only one story is set outside of West Virginia, but its two main characters are from there.
Pancake shows a certain versatility in his use of form. Many stories are in the third person, but two are first-person narratives. One, whose narrator seems to be a truck driving serial killer, is particularly chilling. In another, a young girl runs away with a man who vows to murder someone who has hurt her. She doesn’t believe he will carry through on his threat, and when he does she announces her intentions to leave him. The last sentence of this story speaks with disturbing irony: “’Then let’s talk,’ and his hand brushed against the revolver as he reached for another cigarette.”
Several of these stories are outstanding: “Trilobites,” “The Hollow,” “Fox Hunters,” “In the Dry.” Others are nearly as good. Pancake evokes an intense awareness of place and time, and of the self-awareness of his characters. His best stories plunge you deeply into his world.
The depression and emotional disturbance that led Pancake to suicide at age 27 are always evident in these stories, only four of which were published during his lifetime. An introduction by James Alan McPherson and afterword by John Casey muse over the reasons for his decision to end his life. Everyone seems convinced he was headed towards a brilliant career as a writer. These are the hyperbolic expressions one expects when talented people die early. We can never be sure of what might have been. Despite the promise of these stories, the entrapment they describe extends beyond Pancake’s characters. They suggest entrapment of a particular emotional and intellectual sort, entrapment in a subject matter, in a way of thinking. Pancake would have had to move beyond these frames of mind, the mountain-rimmed country of West Virginia, if he were going to build on and move beyond what these stories achieve. In some sense they dramatize his struggle to break out.
It’s not clear to me that Pancake could or would have moved beyond, and I wonder if his awareness of that entrapment contributed to his death. Such speculations are pointless, as are the ruminations of McPherson and Casey that try to find sense and pattern in his self-annihilation.
An additional afterword by Andrew Dubus III discusses the various merits of Pancake’s writing.