When you think of writers and wasted talent, no doubt you think of Sylvia Plath, who killed herself while still young, or Ernest Hemingway, who died grizzled and by his own hand, or perhaps Sexton, who also suicided, but at middle age. Maybe Salinger, who just closed the doors one day on it all but didn’t off himself, just got old and grouchy.
I think of Breece Dexter John Pancake, dead by his own hand (the gun helped!) in 1979, two years before I was born. Himself born in South Charleston, WV, and raised in Milton – a librarian once told me his home was about where the Wendy’s is at the Milton exit – he graduated from Marshall University before continuing graduate school in Virginia. I love Lee Maynard a lot, but if Breece D’J Pancake were alive today, I’d be a Pancake groupie, and not just because he looks a little like Jeffrey Dahmer! Simply put, Pancake’s kung fu is the best.
Growing up in West Virginia, you get Pearl S. Buck shoved in your face all the time – why the hell did no one ever push Pancake on me? The writing is more modern and accessible to high schoolers, and it’s every bit as sophisticated. I discovered him in college, quite by accident, simply because I liked the fox on the cover. I’m glad I picked it up, because since then, no one has recommended it to me, though I’ve often recommended it to everyone I know. When I worked at a bookstore, I tried to keep a copy on the shelf all the time.
Pancake published six short stories in his lifetime. These and six others were published posthumously as The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake, a Pulitzer nominee. And that’s it. 12 stories. That’s 12 more Pulitzer-prize winning short stories than I’ve written, but it falls woefully short of enough. The slim volume is knockout breathtaking in the power of its language and delivery. Closing the back cover is throwing dirt on the coffin – you know there’s no more. There’s an apparently-awesome book about his work, A Room Forever, that I’m interlibrary loaning.
His effortlessness is an illusion, of course, the result of painstaking labor and discipline. And its not just hillbillies that recognize the honesty and voice in Pancake’s writing. Andre Dubus III and Chuck “Fight Club” Palahniuk, among others, cite him as an influence. Kurt Vonnegut called him the most sincere writer he’d ever read. In a letter to Pancake’s teacher, John Casey (who wrote the afterword to Stories) “What I suspect is that it hurt too much, was no fun at all to be that good. You and I will never know.”
Pancake struggled with depression, and died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound at 26. His body was returned from Virginia to Milton.