In the visual arts, there’s Egon Schiele who died at 28, Seurat at 31, and the photographer Francesca Woodman, who leapt from a window of a Lower East Side building at just 22 years of age.
In literature, there’s Hart Crane. Chugging from Mexico to NYC on a steamship, the 32-year-old poet couldn’t help but hit on some handsome sailors, so got thrashed. Totally trashed days later, Crane keeled overboard. “Goodbye, everybody!”
Sylvia Plath was just 30 when she gassed herself. Her fatal despair also fueled her enduring collection, Ariel, with its fantastically deranged yet much celebrated poem, “Daddy.”
The German-born Otto Plath was a biologist who published Bumblebees and Their Ways in 1934. When Otto died in 1940, Sylvia was just 8-years-old. Although there’s no indication he had any Fascist sympathies, Otto transformed into an uber Nazi in Sylvia’s imagination.
This isn’t just fine but necessary, according to the Jewish critic Marjorie Perloff, “The Age Demanded a universal theme—the rejection not only of the ‘real’ father but also of the Nazi Father Of Us All […]”
Lauding “Daddy” as “the ‘Guernica’ of modern poetry,” the equally chosen George Steiner comments, “Sylvia Plath is only one of a number of young contemporary poets, novelists, and playwrights, themselves in no way implicates in the actual holocaust, who have done most to counter the general inclination to forget the death camps.”
(Far from being forgotten, George, it’s a permanent indictment of the entire West, a colossal hoax that can’t be challenged. Distorting and extorting society, the Holocaust is an insatiable Moloch.)
American letters’ biggest loss to an early death, though, is Breece D’J Pancake. While still a student at the University of Virginia, Pancake shot himself in the head, at age 26. His entire oeuvre consists of just 12 stories, but you’d hard pressed to find a finer batch.
Pancake’s story collection was published posthumously. Though he had joked to his mother that it should be called, “Bullshit Artist,” there’s no false note here. Pancake’s prose is always true and often startlingly fresh, and that’s because he observed and listened very attentively to his native West Virginia.
Stories matter because, at their best, they capture the texture of a place, and give us its inner life also. Beyond their plot or wisdom, they show us how people from a distant place and time really felt, thought and spoke.
Quotidian language is already creative, if not charming and amusing, but the fiction writer is not just a transcriber, of course. He must distill. Consider this exchange between two men, one much older, from Pancake’s “Trilobites”:
The girl brings Jim’s coffee in his cup, and we watch her pump back to the kitchen. Good hips.
“You see that?” He jerks his head toward her.
I say, “Moundsville Molasses.” I can spot jailbait by a mile.
“Hell, girl’s age never stopped your dad and me in Michigan.”
“Tell the truth.”
“Sure. You got to time it so you nail the first freight out when your pants are up.”
I look at the windowsill. It is speckled with the crisp skeletons of flies. “Why’d you and Pop leave Michigan?”
The crinkles around Jim’s eyes go slack. He says, “The war,” and sips his coffee.
“Pump,” “nail” and “skeleton of flies” are so deft and suggestive. Pancake delivers.
“Good hips” instead of “nice ass” is also a nice alteration, and the old man’s “You see that?” is comically authentic.
Of course, stemmed humyns are perked up by good hips, not cloaked up, and youth, as life, ever more life, always seduces, whatever the law. It’s only natural.
If not for this “sexism,” we’d have a society of dour dykes, seething incels and ghastly drag queens, like, well, right now, but I better not say that. It’s not correct.
In “Trilobites,” the narrator, Colly, is briefly visited by his old girlfriend, Ginny. Having moved from West Virginia to Florida, Ginny admits to having a new guy who’s “doing plankton research.”
Still, for old times’ sake, they have sex, and not very prettily, “I slide her to the floor. Her scent rises to me, and I shove crates aside to make room. I don’t wait. She isn’t making love, she’s getting laid. All right, I think, all right. Get laid. I pull her pants around her ankles, rut her.”
Again, the stark, nearly brutal language, but Pancake never allows us to laugh at any of his characters, unlike, say, with Flannery O’Connor. Pancake merges into each one, and through his artistry, we too suffer their desperation, shame and sorrows.
Unlike Ginny, Colly hasn’t been anywhere, “When I was a young punk, I tried to run away from home. I was walking through this meadow on the other side of the Hill, and this shadow passed over me. I honest to god thought it was a pterodactyl. It was a damned airplane. I was so damn mad, I came home.” That’s as close as he’s ever gotten to an airplane.
The dinette’s jailbait is also described as having “Hips and legs that climb steps into airplanes.”
Pancake’s implicit and suggestive style is indebted to Hemingway and his iceberg theory, of course, and his terse prose also betrays influence, but Pancake’s atmosphere, his climate, if you will, is clearly different. It is more grounded, often more trapped, and aches much more.
Further, Pancake’s characters speak with a surer poetry. The younger writer had the better ear, simply put.
Pancake is also more in-tune with the day-to-day grind of ordinary survival. In “A Room Forever,” what a beautiful title, a barge hand describes all the other lonely hearts on a New Year’s Eve, “I look around. All these people have come down from their flops because there are no parties for them to go to. They are strangers who play a little pool or pinball, drink a little booze. All year they grit their teeth—they pump gas and wait tables and screw chippies and bait queers, and they don’t like any of it, but they know they are lucky to get it.”
Get what? Anything, if you’re lucky.
Not knowing what to do with himself, the narrator wanders the superficially festive streets. Feeling mean and low, he enjoys the sight of a drunk bum trying to spread newspapers for his bed, in some cold alley, then he’s softened by the sight of an underaged whore, standing in a doorway, marking him.
They end up in his room, “The darkness is the best thing. There is no face, no talk, just warm skin, something close and kind, something to be lost in. But when I take her, I know what I’ve got—a little girl’s body that won’t move from wear or pleasure, a kid playing whore, and I feel ugly with her, because of her. I force myself on her like the rest. I know I am hurting her, but she will never get any breaks. She whimpers and my body arches in spasms, then after, she curls in a ball away from me, and I touch her. She is numb.”
When he suggests she could stay in this room for the month, get a job at Sears or Penny’s, then pay him back later, she tells him to “just shut-the-fuck-up.” Though he’s slated to ship out the next day, she doesn’t know that, so probably thinks he just wants free sex, but that’s for us to deduce. Pancake doesn’t spell everything out.
Leaving her john, the girl ends up getting plastered in a bar, before slitting her wrists, though without success. She’ll have plenty left to endure.
In Pancake’s story collection, there’s an introduction by James Alan McPherson, and two afterwords, by John Casey and Andre Dubus III. McPherson and Casey were Pancake’s professors at Virginia. Pancake didn’t live long enough to have many literary friends.
McPherson’s recollection is particularly vivid. At their very first meeting, “He asked if I drank beer, if I played pinball, if I owned a gun, if I hunted or fished.”
As outsiders at this still uptight and complexly stratified university, they became fast friends. They drank and even went to movies together. McPherson, a black man, wasn’t just Pancake’s mentor but also a father figure.
McPherson recalls that Pancake was a compulsive gift giver. After McPherson had helped Pancake place a story in the Atlantic, his very first publication, the young man invited his professor to a fine seafood dinner, then gave him a 12-gauge shotgun. Pancake had a closet full of guns.
Tired of Virginia, McPherson left for Yale in 1978, thus ending their two-year friendship. A professor can only do so much. When Pancake sent McPherson a package, he didn’t open it, because “renewing my connection with Breece would take my memories back to Charlottesville, and I wanted to be completely free of the place.”
Less than a year later, Pancake would be dead, but it’s nearly impossible to trace the causes of many, if not most, suicides, for they often have byzantine, far-reaching roots no one can untangle.
Pancake’s father had died of alcoholism, and Pancake drank more than his share, even competitively, to the point of getting into bar fights, with the scars to proudly boast about afterwards.
On one postcard sent to a friend, Pancake wrote as the return address, “One Blow Out Your Brain.” To another friend, he confessed, “If I weren’t a good Catholic, I’d consider getting a divorce from life.”
In Pancake’s stories, there are these ghosts, “He saw his ghost in the window against the outside’s grayness and felt his gut rumble with the flux.”
“Hollis sat by his window all night, staring at his ghost in glass, looking for some way out of the tomb Jake had built for him.”
“And Ottie sees them together a last time: a dying dog and two useless children, forever ghosts, they can neither scream nor play; even dead, they fight over bones.”
“Bo looked out on the broom-sedge slopes. He could swear his daddy’s ghost answered, ‘Yech.’”
“In the window I see our ghosts against the black gloss of glass.”
“The remnants of the night lay strewn about the leaf-floor like a torpid ghost.”
“He loaded his gun and watched a low trail in the brush, a trail he saw through outlines of snow in the ghost light.”
There are even more Pancake ghosts, but you get the idea.
Most strikingly, John Casey, his other professor, claims to have been visited by Pancake’s ghost.
At first, it was only a disturbance of the senses. As Casey was walking across a campus lawn, “I smelled something. I tasted metal in my mouth. I didn’t recognize the smell for an instant. It was a smell I’d known well years before. Gun bluing. But inside this sense of taste and smell was a compelling sympathy, beyond the sympathy of that’s what it smelled like to have the muzzle in his mouth.”
Then, “A month after the experience on the lawn, I was lying in the bathtub trying to think of nothing. I heard a short laugh. Then Breece’s voice, an unmistakable clear twang: ‘That’s one way to get the last word.’” That year, Casey heard Pancake several more times.
After Breece’s death, James Alan McPherson visited Pancake’s native region, a landscape of hills and hollows, “Horizontal vision, in that area, is rare. The sky there is circumscribed by insistent hillsides thrusting upward. It is an environment crafted by nature for the dreamer and for the resigned.”
Of such dreaming, Pancake intones it so gorgeously, “I’ve got eyes to shut in Michigan—maybe even Germany or China, I don’t know yet. I walk, but I’m not scared. I feel my fear moving away in rings through time for a million years.”
Beyond restless yearning and defeatist resignation, there must be other options, though, such as a deepening love for one’s persistently circumscribed hollow, with its too many ghosts one can’t escape from. (As a global tramp, I should be the last to preach this.) There’s always another side to each corpse, no matter how many times you turn him over.
The brightest prospect of America’s quickening disintegration is the reemergence of the local. No longer poisoned by so much centralized filth, we will finally see and hear our neighbors more clearly, as if for the first time, even, thus clearing the way for the emergence of many more Breece D’J Pancakes.
As for the original, may Breece haunt us as long as English survives.