April 08, 2019

Breece Pancake's last day

Breece Pancake, 1952-1979. For my money West Virginia's greatest writer

Forty years ago on this date, I showed up at the Milton Library to perform my duties as a janitor, a job for which I showed no great talent and little diligence. It was Palm Sunday.

I was surprised to see Toney Reese, the main librarian and one of the greatest people I've ever known, show up. She was visibly upset.

When I asked, she told me that Breece Pancake, son of my co-worker Helen, had died of a gunshot wound in an apparent suicide. They had been close.

I was stunned. I knew that the ripple effects of that day would last for years, but I had no idea just how strong they would be.

I can't say I knew him. We'd met a time or two. He was about my brother's age. Both of our fathers were WWII combat veterans who had a little trouble with their homecomings. I knew Helen as a kid when she worked at the local Island Creek store.

Like many people from Milton who were paying attention, I was excited and maybe a little  jealous to learn that he'd  had a couple short stories published by The Atlantic.

At the time and for several years to come, Helen and I worked together at the library each Tuesday evening and every other Saturday. I had no idea what to say or do when I saw her again.

Needless to say, she was traumatized. But over the next several years that we worked together, she healed after a fashion. Partly I think this was due to her determination to see that a book of his stories would be published. "The day they put him in the ground," she told me, "I swore I'd see his book published."

The odds were against it. Books of short stories by new and unknown writers don't often catch on, even with living writers to promote them. It was a great experience to see it come together. Every time I saw Helen, she'd share the latest letters from the dozens of people who helped the book come together and show the latest stories that were posthumously published.

It finally came out in 1983 as The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake under the Atlantic Little Brown imprint. The next year a paperback edition came out. Since then, the book has never been out of print and has been translated into several languages.

Helen and I became very close in those years, but I held off reading the book for several months. Finally I sat down one evening and cracked it open. I wound up reading it straight through. The stories were hard as nails through the wrists. I had the same feeling of awe that I'd had after reading other classics, from Aeschylus to Shakespeare.

Many of the stories were set in and around our town, thinly disguised as Rock Camp, with the others scattered around the state. Breece wrote about those lost and left behind, a number which would only grow over the next several decades. And is still growing today.

He saw it coming.

The overall impression reminded me of a line by Bob Dylan:

"everyone of them words rang true
And glowed like burnin' coal
 Pourin' off of every page
Like it was written in my soul
From me to you"
Tangled up in blue indeed.


Elizabeth Gaucher said...

Via Wikipedia: Among the writers who claim Pancake as a strong influence are Chuck Palahniuk, author of Fight Club and Andre Dubus III, author of House of Sand and Fog. After Pancake's death, author Kurt Vonnegut wrote in a letter to John Casey, "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."

SusieQ said...

Beautiful story. Thank you dear Rick��

Swapna said...

Rick- Swapna King here of WVU Department of Behavioral Medicine and Psychiatry. I have faculty and staff that would like you to come to Morgantown to speak on your article on a plan for Mental Health. My email is spking@wvumedicine.org and my number is 304-598-6422. Please call or email at your earliest convenience.