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Wednesday, September 4th, 2002


The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake

by Breece Dj Pancake

Stories That Sting

A review by Adrienne Miller

These are stories that hit you where it hurts. This paperback reissue of The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake, originally published in 1983 (four years after Pancake's suicide at twenty-six) is, tersely put, necessary reading for anyone who cares about good fiction. His stories were published principally in The Atlantic (someday we shall endeavor to find out why Esquire was asleep at the wheel here), and his first publication was the magnificent "Trilobites," the centerpiece of this collection. "Trilobites" begins this way: "I open the truck's door, step onto the brick side street. I look at Company Hill again, all sort of worn down and round. A long time ago it was real craggy and stood like an island in the Teays River."

At Pancake's best, the stories are full-hearted, austere, spare, elegant. His were people rarely tackled in contemporary literature — the silent, the broken, the uneducated white rural poor, and his landscape — grey, bleak, blasted-out West Virginia — was entirely his own. At worst, these stories can be shrill and unrelentingly ruthless ("The Mark"), and the women so one-note as to not be recognizably human. The bumptious, pretentious introduction by James Allan McPherson, Pancake's professor at the University of Virginia, and his mentor, is something to avoid (information, if you can call it that, such as "[Pancake] spoke contemptuously of upper-class women with whom he had slept on a first date," isn't doing anybody any good, and it takes away from the Pancake mystique), but both of the afterwords (John Casey and Andre Dubus III) are intelligent and lovely. Check out the story "The Salvation of Me," a stylistic and thematic departure from the rest of the book (meaning it's really funny), which hints at a limitless range of work that might have come.

Adrienne Miller is Esquire's literary editor.

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