Tuesday, October 04, 2005

A Troubled Guest on the Dark Earth

And so long as you haven’t experienced this,
To die and so to grow,
You are only a troubled guest on the dark earth.
-Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, "The Holy Longing"

I'm not sure if it was coincidence or what, but coming across these famous final lines of Goethe's poem just a day or two after having finished the remarkable stories of Breece D'J Pancake seemed almost too perfect to be an accident. "A troubled guest on the dark earth"... anyone who reads the stories from this amazing writer and then immediately goes on to lament, as we all must, his tragic suicide at the age of 26 will understand why the phrase fits. One slim volume of short stories is all the world ever got from Pancake before he took his own life -- and while I would never call it "enough" (the word could never be even considered when describing art of this magnitude), I will say that as soon as I had read them, I knew why they were still in print and still being read, and also why they will continue to be read as long as there is a recognized category known as "American literature."

Reading The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake was, for me anyway, one of those incredibly rare experiences in which your mind is re-calibrated, your understanding of what fiction is capable of doing forever expanded. In my reading life, I can think of only three other writers whose short stories have had such an impact on my imagination: Flannery O'Connor, Franz Kafka and Eudora Welty. The cumulative effect of reading the 12 stories (the whole of his entire ouevre) in succession went far beyond the emotional realm for me and almost into the physical. The dark, gloomy, lonely mood of the stories feels like it's settling on you even as you read them, like a wet fog. You feel like shuddering as you read some of them, and you're not sure if it's because of the emotional power of the writing, or because a cold draft just went through the room.

Pancake's stories were recommended to me by a friend and colleague of mine at the office, and though I had heard of him once or twice (a name like that is hard to forget), I didn't know a darn thing about him or his work. I always figured the name was just a crazy nom de plume or something, so my first surprise (as it must be for most people new to his work) was that it was indeed his real name -- well, almost. His given name was actually Breece Dexter Pancake, but when one of his stories was accepted by The Atlantic Monthly while he was in college, he received a proof back from them and there was a typo in his name. He was so amused by it that he asked them to leave it as is, and that's how the name Breece D'J Pancake came to be.

Pancake was born and raised in rural West Virginia, and all of his stories focus on the landscape and the people of his native state. His knowledge of that landscape seems to run so deep that it actually plunges below the surface, surveying not only the farms and factories and workers that reside upon the land, but also the geographic and geologic history trapped within the earth itself (as in the well-known first story in the collection, 'Trilobites'). And he was somehow able to so identify with the poor, working-class people of the region -- mechanics, coal miners, amateur boxers, dock workers, organizers of illegal cockfighting -- that his expressions of their struggles, heartbreaks and worries seem almost impossible, as if he just knew their lives in a way you couldn't possibly know them by simple observation. After all, he was not the poor hillbilly he sometimes put himself off to be in his days as a graduate student at the snobbish University of Virginia -- his background was solidly middle class. And yet, he obviously took to heart the loneliness and struggle of the lower class in his home state, and poured out this pent-up frustration and hopelessness in stories so well crafted, so desolate and moving, that you find yourself wondering just how it was that a 20-ish kid from Appalachia could express such deep anguish with such, well, amazing grace.

The stories are bleak, spare and uncompromising in their portrayal of human loneliness and yearning. In 'Hollow,' a coal miner tries to counterbalance his miserable existence in the mines by drinking (and brawling) in the local biker bar one night and trying to keep his girlfriend from leaving him, all the while remembering his father who never made it out of the mines either. He wakes up hung over, lying on his trailer floor, his girlfriend gone and a new day of work dawning. The nameless protagonist of the haunting 'A Room Forever' is a lonely tugboat worker with a dangerous job who drifts through sorry river towns searching for someone to connect with. He leaves his $8-per-night seedy hotel room on New Year's Eve looking for some kind of human contact, sleeps with a teenage runaway and later finds her half-dead in an alley behind a bar, but does nothing to try and help her. 'The Scrapper' is a violent and unforgettable tale of an amateur boxer who refuses to hang up the gloves, even when he's beaten half to death in some back-alley slugfest. He seems to have a hunger for violence he can't let go of. 'The Honored Dead' powerfully portrays the guilt of a man who returns home to West Virginia after running away to avoid the Vietnam draft, only to find that he's unable to escape the memory of his best friend who went and was killed there. And in the final story, the heartbreaking 'First Day of Winter,' a young man who yearns for escape finds himself struggling to keep afloat the failing family farm while caring for his two elderly parents, receiving no help or sympathy from his older brother and falling into the prison of bitterness and regret.

These descriptions sound conventional enough, but the stories themselves are anything but. I wish I could convey how remarkably written and emotionally jarring these stories are, but I just can't find the words. I've re-written parts of this post 3, 4 times but I just can't seem to get across the atmosphere and the harsh beauty of Pancake's writing. In these simple, economic stories he somehow seems to capture the essence of human longing, loneliness and desire for communion and forgiveness. And by all accounts, he was a man who struggled for connection and acceptance himself, yet somehow never found what he was looking for (despite, interestingly, his conversion to Catholicism about a year before his death). You feel his tragic and untimely death, of course, as you read his work, almost as you would sense someone looking over your shoulder, and it only adds to the power of the experience.

There's so much more I could say about Pancake's work, and yet, for some reason, I can't find a way to say it. These stories are absolutely remarkable. Both they and he (not literally, but the thought of his incredible talent and obvious moral and spiritual seriousness being lost to his unfulfilled needs) have haunted my thoughts almost non-stop since I finished the book. Suffice it to say that I can't recommend these stories forcefully enough. You may or may not enjoy them, but I guarantee this: you will not forget them.


Mutt Ploughman said...

Duke told me that this post on Pancake, and this is a quote, 'totally sucks'. But I can honestly say I don't know what the hell he's talking about. If I had to guess I'd say he was so affected by Breece Pancake's stories that anything he could write would fail to convey his strong reaction to them. But that comes through clearly enough in his post, and if that's the case then he has done his job right by stating the fact. Obviously, these are powerful stories, and deserve to be read: I've heard of Pancake too, but after reading this blog, I'm convinced that I need to check the stories out. Besides, 99.99% of bloggers would never be able to find a perfect snippet of poetry from which to launch a posting on any writer. Duke's love of poetry serves his writing better than he thinks it does. I have plenty of reading on my list to keep me occupied for months, but it's obvious that I'm going to need to check out Pancake. Sounds like there's plenty of meat to go along with these flapjacks. Great post, Duke. You sold me on 'em!

Duke Altum said...

Mutt, I might as well reveal here that I was so convinced of their importance, and of how much you would value them as a writer yourself, after I read them, that I IMMEDIATELY purchased a new copy of the for you. Expect it in an upcoming XChange. They are that good. You need to read them as soon as you can fit them in.

And you are right, I was thunderstruck when I finished this book. They were so heartbreaking and powerful to me I found it almost hard to believe.