My parents were married in 1976, and my mother moved up to Charlottesville, Virginia, from her home state of South Carolina to join my dad, who was in graduate school there. They rented a cinderblock house from novelists John Casey and Jane Barnes and one of the characters they came to know was a young student named Breece Pancake. The house I grew up in held Breece’s only book on a shelf otherwise occupied by books of poetry. There are three versions of this book: one has a fox on the cover, one a shack in a mountain hollow, and one—the original—is a thicker book with heavier paper and a slick off-yellow cover. “The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake” is printed in a very large font that takes up half the dust jacket, and the names of James Alan McPherson, who wrote the foreword, and John Casey, who wrote the afterword, take up most of the lower section. Between these two large blocks of text is a pen-and-ink drawing the size of a thumbprint. A trilobite.
I pull this globby rock from my pocket and slap it on the counter in front of Jim. He turns it with his drawn hand, examines it. “Gastropod,” he says. “Probably Permian. You buy again.” I can’t win with him. He knows them all.
I still can’t find a trilobite,” I say.
“There are a few,” he says. “Not many. Most of the outcrops around here are too late for them.”
—From “Trilobites,” by Breece D’J Pancake
Most people have not heard of Breece Pancake. He died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound when he was twenty-six and The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake, which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, was published several years after his death. The Stories—violent, haunting, and heartbreakingly beautiful—inspired Kurt Vonnegut to write John Casey that “As for Breece D’J Pancake: 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.”
Breece was the third of three children born to Bud and Helen Pancake, who raised him in a boxy, white and brick house with awnings over the windows on two acres in Milton, a small town in the southwest hills of West Virginia. His mother, whose maiden name was Frazier, hailed from Frazier’s Bottom, a point on the Kanawha River nearby. His father’s people settled in West Virginia almost a century after his mother’s, but they were fixed in the area, too, long before Breece was born. Bud was employed for thirty-five years by Union Carbide, the chemical company based in nearby South Charleston that made ethylene and was responsible for Eveready and Energizer batteries, Glad bags, Simoniz car wax, and Prestone Antifreeze.
Breece called his dad “Ole Bud” and mirrored him in many ways, smoking a pipe, exploring land around Milton, hanging a cup with his name on a hook by his father’s cup in a local restaurant that had such hooks and cups for regulars. Together, Bud and Breece hunted, fished, collected guns, and shared stories.
In Breece’s high school graduation picture he is sandy-haired, clean-cut, and soft-featured with a weary eye. He wears a suit and tie. He could be anyone. Before he left for college, Breece searched the hills around his home for fossils and arrowheads wearing a green army jacket and a red bandanna, memorizing everything he could about the home he loved, even though he knew he’d leave it and even though he felt he didn’t quite fit in.
His older sisters had been the first ones in the family to go off to college, and they encouraged him to investigate the world outside Cabell County, introducing him to classics when he was a child and later encouraging him to travel to Washington, D.C., Phoenix, Arizona, Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, and other places that may have seemed unnecessary to the Pancakes and the Fraziers of previous generations.
He enrolled in college at Wesleyan, in Buckhannon, West Virginia, at the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains, three hours from Milton, but soon transferred schools to be even closer to home and to his father, who had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
By the time my parents knew Breece as a graduate student at U.Va, where he studied under John Casey, who went on to win a National Book Award, and James Alan McPherson, who went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for fiction, Ole Bud had died and Breece’s best friend’s head had been severed in a car accident.
At Virginia, Breece emphasized that he was a hillbilly and an outsider.
Jane Barnes, the Virginia novelist then married to John Casey, remembers
When he first came on the scene in Charlottesville, he was innocent and outlandish and loud-voiced. It was easy to feel affection even in his gaucheness. But the longer he was here, the more complicated he became in his manners…. The longer he stayed, the more complicated his social performance became.
By then, he wore his hair in a tangle, had grown a beard, and wore jeans, flannel shirts, and cowboy boots. His brows and bangs shaded his lazy eye. He avoided students he found pretentious. He placed more stock in hunting and fishing than in framing his thoughts in literary theory, though that was the culture. “Breece hated that,” my father has said. “He didn’t care about the things that make someone good at graduate school.”
The people who remember Breece from his time at Virginia recall that he did not fit even in his own skin: he was “big-boned,” or “raw-boned,” or “tall and heavy-boned,” or awkward, they remember, and he was loud and unpredictable. McPherson, his mentor, described him as lanky, with straw-blond hair that lacked softness.
He kept his guns at my parents’ house for most of his time at Virginia and would take his arms out, go hunting, and bring back his frequently undesirable bounty, which my mother hated—it was a mean trick. Once, he brought a passel of squirrels, tied up by their tails, and told my father that since he was converting to Catholicism, he was forgiving people; the squirrels were a peace offering because he had begun to see my father as one of the stuck-up graduate students he deplored.
What bothered my mother, in part, I think, was that he never apologized for himself. If he apologized to you, he was apologizing for you. She was the sort of person who chose birds and dogs over people, and he teased her when she got upset over game in the house—dead rabbits, maybe even a dead opossum.
He didn’t exactly fit in, my father has always acknowledged, but he was respected. You couldn’t read the things he wrote and not respect him. People wanted to know him and hear his stories. People liked him in fact, in the beginning—they opened up to him and felt betrayed when he turned against them, drawing the people from his life into his stories as he drew the characters of these same stories into his real life.
For instance, in Breece’s story “Fox Hunters,” a man talks about his father:
Meaner’n a teased snake. Got me laid when I’s eight.
At a brothel, beating whores along the way.
He taked me t’ this room an’ busted in on this gal an’ made her lay real still till I’s finished. Then she called Daddy a SOB cause all he give her was fifty cents, an’ he knocked her teeth out.
I know that there was another graduate student about Breece’s age, insecure and beloved—a gold-star graduate student—who ran in the same circles, and there was a rumor that this person’s father got him laid as a child in a whorehouse. Though Breece wrote “Fox Hunters” before he met this fellow student, he teased the story out and made it sting again and again.
“Breece would say one thing and then he’d change his story,” my father once said. “He would say, ‘Oh, my father was a redneck coal miner,’ and later, ‘My father was a banker.’ I’m making these specifics up,” my father said, “but that was the sort of thing he did. That’s why people felt betrayed. They thought he could relate to them, but you never knew the truth.”
The truth, of course, was that he did and didn’t want to relate to the graduate students. He was afraid of having too much in common with the Ivy Leaguers and preps, the collegiate aristocracy. In Breece Pancake’s stories, men can’t go home when they’ve made it somewhere else, like the small-town boys who try their luck on Broadway with varying degrees of success and failure.
A couple of the first ones killed themselves, then the real hell was watching the ones who came back, when Pop told them there was no work at the station for faggots.
Breece was frustrated when the people at Virginia did not know these sorry heroes and these sons of bitches, the West Virginia hill folk of his imagination, and I guess I can’t know whether he started rumors or appropriated episodes from the lives of his would-be friends. He kept ghosts for company and couldn’t explain to the khaki-wearing set what haunted him. It was more than the fiction alone and more than the grief of his real life.
In 1984, five years after Breece’s death and seven years after “Trilobites” was published in The Atlantic, a Washington Post staff writer met Helen Pancake in West Virginia and asked her, in the company of a family friend, if she was ever bothered by the “earthiness” of her son’s fiction.
“Shoot no,” she said. “I’ve read filthy stories. His weren’t like that. Oh, some of them could be pretty harsh. I said to him one time after I read ‘Trilobites,’ ‘Son, that scene in the depot. You must have raped that girl.’ And he said, ‘Not really, mother.’ And that was about the end of it. See, around here you kind of grow up hearing about rape. He just put it in.”
“Rough wooing,” said Sam, the friend. “Rough wooing.”
My mother told me once that she didn’t like Breece because he left my father and John Casey to clean up after him when he died, and I took this literally and imagined them washing his walls with Lysol. She regretted saying it and didn’t mention it again. Now I know that I misinterpreted her words.
A few weeks before he died, Breece wrote this letter to John Casey.
When you read this it really won’t matter anymore, but I offer these thoughts the way a fossil comes back to haunt a geologist—but haunt isn’t the right word, and I’m too stupid to think of another. But anyway…
Remember May, 1975? “God, why didn’t you tell me…if I’d known you were this good, I’d have offered you a fellowship.” I hadn’t told you because I knew I wasn’t. Then the summer of bad times when I pounded on doors, got fed-up, and bingo they offered me a job sight unseen from Staunton, and bingo my father and my best friend croaked within a week of each other, and bingo I held on for dear life. I held on because of me, but I held on with the help of you. The night we went to see Ali murder Frazier in Manila, that night I nearly knocked your brains out with my driving into the parking-lot abutement [sic]. I was trying to think of some way to thank you for going with me to the fights, and I forgot to hit the breaks [sic].
Remember L-------? “I know you want me to tell you I’ve had a great time, but well, I’ve had a good time.” And there were breakfasts with wheat cakes and lemon curd and spring mornings when I’d drive the VW from Staunton. I hit a “tree-rat,” as Jane called it, but nobody was up to that for breakfast with lemon curd. And I drove home thinking what a wonderful day it had been, and how my father would want me to stop for coffee at least twice on the way home. I stopped three times for coffee, but when I got home my mother called to tell me Cousin ------- had dispatched his brains by a NY lake that morning. I wasn’t all that sorry for Cousin -------
Remember May, 1976? Jane said: “We go to the house of my father—it has many bathrooms.” I came over loaded in the VW for home, left you the things one needs for long stays away—salt, coffee, whiskey, and a blanket. I spent the summer writing what would become “Trilobites,” you wrote of hopes of “Liberty.” Later I came to Charlottesville, worked up the story, read a good novel in a galley, met one Rod Kilpatrick. L------- died and went to heaven on somebody else’s cross. I died over a girl who was dry as beans in a bed but full of lush on the phone. She moved. I stayed.
Remember May, 1977? I wrote to say a story was sold. I got no answer. I worked frying hamburgers, selling golf balls. Richard had dinner with me before late Mass. I remember you coming all the way here to welcome me to the Catholic faith. I missed you. I went home and started a story, then I found I would teach next year, so I started my lesson-plans. I finished the story and the lessons when you returned. The story wasn’t good enough and you helped me—soon it was good enough.
Remember Emily Miller? “Then Kerrigan said there weren’t any virgins left in this day and time—but—I’m afraid he—well he was wrong.” So I decided she was right. I wanted to marry her, but later when it became clear I would have no work, I wanted to become a padre. Me a padre? I loved this girl. I loved this girl. Still, I had work and you told me I’d get none. Still, I love this girl, and time flew its course. I sold another story: I called you on a winter’s night and you were happy. Still, I love the girl.
Remember July, 1978? I went to the Southwest, and you went to Jane’s Father’s house. I loved the girl. I wrote several cards to you but the Post Office was on strike. I loved the girl. I went to a woman I knew in South Phoenix (blacks and Mexicans), but she told me I loved the girl. I went to a woman I knew in North Phoenix (lily white), but she told me I loved the girl. I wrote you from a Big Boy counter on Central Ave., and I had no money and no place to sleep, had no nothing. And “John this is the last I’ll ask.” And it was. You were good enough to give me a clean bill of health with my dentist and then some.
So remember May, 1979? I can’t. But as I see it, you’ll go on as you have before I came. You’re an honest man, John Casey—honest at your heart—but what will you do for those who come after? Will you take a clean and simple writer like -----, and by giving him funds turn him into the slop ------- is made of? I could stay, I know, John, were I to beg—I might even have a job were I to stay one more year. Johnny, and you’ll have to take a drink now, would you love me if I did? I love you. I love you because when my father and friend were dead you helped me hang on for dear life, told me I could write (and be damned if I haven’t done a passing job). Alright then, the bargain is settled. I can write, now, and nothing else matters. You’ve fought hard for me John—fought hard for five years, and please don’t think that by my gruff manner and early temper I am any less the man for you. And by your fight, I hope something comes of me worthy of calling your own name to. I’m not good enough to work or marry, but I’m good enough to write.
Can you find a tear or two in these lines they are mine, and I will hope you shed them in Ireland this summer. Maybe we’ll neither of us see Heaven, but if you can bring yourself to it, say a prayer for me (not in any church) under an Irish sky.
May God Bless and Go with You and Yours Always, John Casey.
On a copy of this letter, my father underlined “I would have no work” twice. In the margins he wrote, “Why did he think this? AAgh!”
Now I know that cleaning up after him meant that my father and John went to Breece’s house together and collected mail that came for him and sent it home to Milton. They sifted through job acceptance letters. His death made a mess of his friends, who only saw the signs after he was gone, or who had thought before he died that they could see him spiraling away from them, only to be rebuffed by Breece when they offered support. They loved him even as he confounded them.
The night before he died, Breece went to the movies with his girlfriend, Emily. They saw The Deer Hunter.
The next morning was Palm Sunday, and Emily went to church while Breece stayed home with a cold. He went later, to a 3 p.m. Mass, and stopped by Emily’s place to let her know he’d pick her up Monday morning so she could ride with him to an out-of-town job interview.
After Mass, he went home and drank a few beers.
Around 6 p.m., a neighbor’s girlfriend was startled by the dark shadow of a man she did not expect or recognize when she walked into her boyfriend’s home with a sack of groceries. She screamed and dropped the bag and Breece rose from a chair in the unlit kitchen. According to the complainant’s report to the sheriff’s office, “Mr. Pancake cornered her and explained that he had a drinking problem and had a tendency to wander around.”
In the half-hour between the moments the woman dropped her groceries and the police arrived, Breece’s landlady, Mrs. Meade, knocked on his door and told him that police were on their way to question him.
He called out from his room that he was sorry, and as the sirens neared, he walked outside with the only gun he hadn’t gifted off, a Savage Arms over/under shotgun, serial number B366615, sat down in a plastic folding chair beneath an apple tree, propped the gun on the ground with the muzzle in his mouth, and pulled the trigger.
My mother started working on suicide hotlines after Breece died. She didn’t talk about it much, but when my sister and I lost two of our favorite friends in a car accident when I was in tenth grade and my sister was in seventh, our mother knew all the right things to say.
My mother drove me through West Virginia a few times, and one time in particular we just drove aimlessly around the hills together. We were in a white van that had been hit by a deer on New Year’s Eve and bent back into shape, though not perfectly. I was out of school for the summer and she wanted to show the state to me for no other reason, she said, than that it was beautiful. So we rattled around the mountains off the highways, driving by trailers and tilting shacks crowded together between the road and the ridges. We looked out for dogs and waterfalls and faces in the crags, which I don’t remember seeing. We didn’t spend a night.
Later, when I was in college far from home, my mother died. Suddenly, of complications from pneumonia.
And I couldn’t eat and drank too much and couldn’t sleep or slept too much and I decided that it wouldn’t be so bad to drop out and go home, where I had some connections, I thought, and be a secretary or a nurse or work at a bank.
I moved home and transferred schools—like Breece, I stayed in college. One day, when I was hiding from visitors in my father’s study, I found The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake again, still on the shelf with poetry, and I reread it. He knew all the right things to say.
One of my favorite photographs is of West Virginia, taken almost a decade before my birth, when my parents called Charlottesville home. My mother took the picture while she was camping with my father and gave a copy to my great aunt, who hung it in a gold frame in her dining room.
It’s of a foggy morning with a mist rising off a creek like steam and threading through the trees. Everything is hushed in grey-greens and golds. The coruscation is as delicate as a Vermeer.
“That was the most beautiful place I’d ever seen, I thought,” my mother told me. “I wanted to go back so badly, and when we finally did, there was no fog.” She pointed between the trees, where the haze is thickest in the photograph. “That was a trailer park,” she said. “A really sad, rundown, pathetic kind of trailer park. But you’d never know from this picture. I stood right across the water to take it. I had no idea. It looked like heaven.”