It’s not often that I take someone’s book recommendation so seriously as to immediately try to lay my hands on a copy. One always has a personal list, a long never-ending catalogue of the books one should read and the order they should be read. Usually this list is not followed; it’s an aspiration. But Jon Michaud’s essay on the collected stories of the hilariously named Breece D’J Pancake sent me scurrying to make sure I found it. I didn’t think it very likely that I’d come across a used copy of a little-known American writer whose single collection of twelve stories was published three years after his death in 1979. Although, last week I noticed that W.H. Smith has been carrying the Vintage (Random House) edition of Pancake's collection.Grab a copy.
I read the collection over Easter, in small chunks, when I was A.’s house in Reading. The quietness of this year’s Easter in the suburbs of a mid-size southern English town, the sporadic showers, and the wavering light, was the perfect setting.
The title of this post comes from the last story in the collection, 'First Day of Winter'. Pancake’s language is direct; comparisons with Hemingway are just, but he is more open to exploring feeling in language, as opposed to leaving it between the silences. His characters are isolated, failures, workers, dreamers, desperate, violent, eerie, living in the beautiful but impoverished South (West Virginia, Ohio): people one might call white trash, with rich lives, or at least, lives indistinguishable from his rich language.
From ‘Trilobites’: ‘Far off, somebody chops wood, and the ax-bites echo back to me. The hillsides are baked here and have heat ghosts.’
I thoroughly recommend Pancake to anyone interested in localised fiction. It’s a tragedy that Pancake’s suicide robbed American letters of hearing his voice mature, of having more than a single collection, as substantial as it is.
Here’s the essay that got me started.