There’s one event that seems to color all reviews of Breece D’J Pancake’s collected short stories: his suicide in 1979 when he was only 26 years old. Maybe it’s the shock that such a talented author would take his own life seemingly just as he was beginning his work. Or maybe it’s that such a thing would not seem at all out of place in Pancake’s grim narratives of loneliness and self-destruction. The stories are all set in the rural West Virginia of Pancake’s youth, a landscape of beauty, violence, and exploitation: ancient hills where foxes and deer walk amongst the shadows, hamlets where the women serve coffee at the diner and the men breathe their deaths in the coal mines. Against this backdrop, Pancake’s spare prose doesn’t waste a syllable as it depicts hopeful people straining against the confines of their place and time. In “The Scrapper,” a fighter whose mother had once begged him “Don’t never hurt nobody again” gets his jaw broken in a backwoods boxing match. In “First Day of Winter,” a son must tend to his aging parents, a task made all the harder by the fact that his brother escaped long ago to start a life beyond their holler and its suffocating responsibilities. In the cryptic “Time and Again,” a murderer picks up a hitchhiker but finds that he is too tired to kill. Other stories about fighting and drinking are not macho celebrations of brutality, but rather portraits of characters bound to live with themselves and these sad, small acts. Yet more than anything else, Pancake’s precise and measured language is what really makes these stories, evoking so many feelings and emotions with so few words. When the collection was first published in 1983, Joyce Carol Oates wrote that the stories “are as compactly and tightly written as prose poems.” Read any one of them and you will have to agree.
Francis Reynolds is an editorial assistant at Guernica. Read his last recommendation on Joshua Clover’s 1989,