Skip to main content

The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake

"Bo hung his head and waited
for the roof to fall."
I must say that, having bought this book in a moment of lunacy a few years back, when, secured for stock at my former place of work by a seriously lovely and well-informed geeky book-type pseudo-named Bert, I took an illogical shine to the author's name, I was perturbed by the strong, almost hyperbolic, recommendations adorning the cover, with comparisons to Hemingway, and not one but two - count 'em, two! - bookends from some heavyweight literary chappies. This was nothing like that which I expected of someone whose middle initials were liaised bizarrely* and whose surname made me think of maple syrup. I was probably reading Charles Portis or something equally surreal at the time, and was in the mood for more. Hence, Breece has survived the move (I was still hoping for silliness) but had been gathering dust (it's short stories after all).

Talk about astonishing**! I was astonished. 

There are two main reasons for this. One, I'd just rediscovered I Ain't Marching Anymore, a collection of folksy protest songs by Phil Ochs - video at the end - on my iPod, whose West Virginian roots I unearthed as a result of James Alan McPherson's introduction, along with Pancake's infatuation with him. Quelle coïncidence! 

Two, it's freaking awesome stuff. 

Dark, disturbing, ultimately human, Pancake's depiction of the West Virginia of his youth allows no sentimentality, but never condemns. His characters are uniformly lost, ultimately stranded in their own lives with only violence and longing as constant companions. A boy's only friend is a woman the town pillories as a whore; a woman loses her unborn child whilst secretly coveting her lost brother; a sailor rapes a runaway teenager because he doesn't know what else to do with her. Pancake doesn't play to the adoration of the crowd, only writing what he must, his characters taking centre stage and not his writing, which nonetheless almost fizzes and bubbles from his pen. It is a tragedy that he didn't live to write more, or that more of his work hasn't been collected and published posthumously. He has made me consider the way I write, being myself what I would probably decry as a clever clever writer, instead of a writer like Pancake who is clever because he doesn't feel the need to hog the limelight, letting his prose do the work. As one who we're told studiously re-wrote to get just the right phrase, le mot just, the right sound to his writing, I'm not surprised it reads so damned well and is quite so movingly brilliant. 

I am truly moved, no joke.

So if you want to read something that is excellent in as many different meanings as you can think of, you can read one of these pretty damned amazing stories, The Honored Dead, over at BiblioKlept, where they "run short stories, poems, essays, and excerpts by various authors (mostly in the public domain, but sometimes not)." Not that I condone that sort of thing, but at least you can get a taste of some pretty great writers. For free.

Otherwise, trip on over to The Book Depository and buy a copy. Hell, buy several and leave 'em on trains. I'm planning to do just that.

Now, go check out some Phil Ochs.




* A result of a typo by his first publishers, who instead of using a period, used an apostrophe, something which caught Pancake's fancy and which he decided to adopt officially.

** Regulars at the metaliterary feast table might expect sarcasm, but I'm pleased to say that his is said with all due respect to the author and his work.

Comments

How's about that then?

Selected Holiday Reading - The In-Betweeners Abroad

I always try to travel light, a goal, something with which those among you with bookish leanings will empathise, that is challenging for someone intending to do as much reading as they can whilst ignoring as much culture and scenery as is possible. So huzzah and indeed hurrah for the generic e-book reader and its market competitors. Ten years ago I would likely have suffered a paroxysm of disgust for any apologist of the hated technology. Now, it seems, I must take one everywhere I go for more than one night.



The trip to which I am coming, an August sojourn by ferry to Santander and then by VW through Calabria, the Basque country, and north through Aquitaine, Poitou-Charente, Pays de la Loire and Bretagne, was a chance to get some serious reading under the belt. Twelve days of driving, drinking, books and beaches. The only 'real' books that made the trip were The Vagabond's Breakfast, of which more anon, and All The Days And Nights which, as I was on a deadline, I quickly …

Under The Dust by Jordi Coca

So, wheel of fortune, count to 29, pin the tail, freebies off of peeps on Twitter etc. etc. Whatever the methods sometimes employed to pick the next book in my intertextual experience, the one that brought me to Jordi Coca brought me to a whopping great slice of nostalgia. Before I'd even opened it, it brought to mind Richard Gwyn, himself a published poet, author, biographer, translator and course director of the MA Creative Writing course at Cardiff University, who I recall for some odd reason gently encouraging me to read this novel, and by whose own work I was quietly impressed at the time. He was also an advocate of Roberto Bolaño, another writer in whose work I can immerse myself but from which I emerge drained, as mentioned previously. Before that, though, there is this sticker on the front, declaring 'Signed by the Author at Waterstone's'. It is indeed signed by Jordi Coca, not adding any particular intrinsic value to the book, not for me anyway, but more impor…

The One from the Other by Philip Kerr

Philip Kerr is an author I have been reluctant to attempt to review for some time. His Berlin Noir trilogy cost me some hours of sleeplessness and in the end I decided to skip a review and just be happy to have read it and therefore move it from the pile of unread novels, via the edge of my desk where the “to review” pile occasionally falls over on to the typewriter and spills my pen pot across the floor and thus causes significant risks when stumbling blindly about the room at night too drunk to remember where my bed is or having just been jolted awake by the boy shrieking from the next room and running asleep into walls and doors, to the back half of my giant Ikea bookcase where novels that have been read and have caused my self-esteem to shatter on the diamond-hard edges of someone else’s talent currently reside, gathering dust and moisture until hitting the mildew tipping point and becoming physically dangerous in their own right. This awesome crew consists mainly of Will Self, Jo…

Hannah Green And Her Unfeasibly Mundane Existence by Michael Marshall Smith

I was sold this book by Simon at the Big Green Bookshop in return for the money it cost plus a small donation towards operating costs and postage. 

In truth, I'd forgotten it was on its way, and it was a fucking lovely surprise when it arrived at my desk in work, my letterbox at the time being a tad short on width and breadth and unlikely to admit a hardback plus packaging. I recall very much enjoying reading Michael Marshall Smith, and I also enjoyed re-reading him, recently, and I documented this here, here and here. This was a book for which I hadn't realised I'd been waiting for a long time. 

However, had I not the history and warm, cosy feelings safely tucked up in the nostalgia bank, I would probably not have picked this up, going solely on the cover. There's a clock, the silhouette of a small girl, and leaves, along with a colour contrast and meandering font which brought to mind something cringe-worthily reminiscent of Alexander McCall-Smith*, or the covers of Sc…