Last week I fulfilled a long held dream of mine: I spent Monday evening unpacking and arranging all my books in the shelving in my new house. It may seem like the nerdiest dream of all time but my entire library has never been in the same place as I have moved so many times and so always had books in storage. To see all my books side by side in bookcases in my living room makes me very happy!
One of the advantages of this is that I get to re-read books that I haven’t read for years. I picked The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake out of the shelves last week and have been reading it over the last few days. For those of you who don’t know him, Pancake was an acclaimed American short story writer who seemed on his way to a brilliant career when he committed suicide by self-inflicted gunshot wound aged 26 in 1979. Compared by many to Ernest Hemingway, he emerged as a fully formed writer, with a simplicity of style and a profound talent for description that belied his young age.
There are twelve stories in the collection, six of which had been published, mostly in The Atlantic Monthly, during Pancake’s lifetime. Pancake took as his subject the hills of West Virginia, where he came from, and the people that lived there. They are impoverished people; farmers, miners, amateur boxers, ex-convicts, tugboat workers, welfare recipients who live in trailers, who shoot squirrels and deer not for sport but for food. They live in a world that straddles both the past and present; the ways of the past are still ingrained in their daily lives, but yet they know there is a better world out there in America somewhere, away from the bleak landscape and grinding poverty.
Pancake’s prose is spare and elegant. There are no extraneous words and every description, no matter how concise, reveals much about the characters. It is obvious he knows intimately the area that he writes about – he knew the intricacies of mining, the geology and history of the area, the weather patterns, the native language – but most of all he knew the people, and his acutely observed characters are utterly real. Pancake worked hard to achieve this seemingly effortless style and I think his stories deserve repeated reading as they contain many lessons for writers like me.
Kurt Vonnegut wrote to John Casey after Pancake’s death saying, “I give you my word of honor that he is merely the best writer, the most sincere writer I’ve ever read. What I suspect is that it hurt too much, was no fun at all to be that good. You and I will never know.”