So inspired was I by David Sedaris’ recommendation of a book entitled, “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned” at his Festival of Ideas lecture last weekend, I decided to recommend a book that I GUARANTEE most people who have looked at my blog have not read, or heard of; if anyone has, please comment with your thoughts; or if you’re compelled enough by my recommendation to find this book please take a look at it and tell me what you think.
I was at a then-new used book store on Whyte Avenue with a friend nearing the end of August and I picked up a book entitled ‘The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake’ with a recommendation by Joyce Carol Oates on the front cover stating, “A young writer of such extraordinary gifts that one is tempted to compare his debut to Hemingway’s.” I flipped through it for a few minutes and the girl at the counter said, “ohhhh, THAT book. That book is REALLY good; do you like Faulkner?” Do I ever. She replied, “I’m a HUGE Faulkner fan and that book reminded me of his novels. It’s a collection of almost Southern Gothic short fiction.” Well, I’m sold at this point. So I bought the book.
An aside about the author, as per the notes and afterward in this book; his short fiction was primarily published in The Atlantic, was born in 1952 in West Virginia and taught English at Virginia military schools before entering the creative writing program in his home state university. Tragically, he passed away at age 26. Suicide. This book is a collection of his fiction, collected from various magazines and journals in which he was published during his lifetime.
The writing is gritty; dank and miserable and of an atmosphere of sheer poverty, endearing ignorance and looming sadness and dissatisfaction. The writer’s eye for detail is astonishingly beautiful in its ugliness for the most part, though at times just frankly beautiful. These stories are laden with images of animals, both dead and alive and in my favourite story in the collection, ‘Fox Hunter’, the description of a possum carrying her young across the street before finding a fellow possum’s “leathery corpse” is deeply haunting and creates a dim atmosphere, perhaps corresponding with the author’s dissent into depression and ultimately suicide.
There’s such a thing as seeing pain behind someone’s eyes and there is visible pain behind these stories, although they are also full of surprises and rich, full language, descriptions, memorable characters and a quiet confidence; I’m sure this writer knew he was good. His stories can make you cry and think and sometimes when I read them I sit back in awe, wishing I could be one tenth this good. A true prodigy who, as many prodigies do, ended his life so young that the world was never able to fully see to what extent such a master of the English language could truly pull off with further age, experience and opportunity.
The following is a sample paragraph from one of the stories entitled, “A Room Forever”:
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 (58).
Breece D’J Pancake is, forgive the cliché, a ‘writer’s writer.’ That is, he takes language and subverts it wholly, takes the approach of calling writers out in a passive-aggressive challenge, tells stories that he believes his audience and/or contemporaries can truly truly see as oppose to taking a look at say, the possum and her young at face-value.
Please read this! You’ll thank me later!