Summer Stories (and Some’re Not) – Breece D’J Pancake
The first thing you must do to appreciate the strengths of the twelve stories posthumously collected in The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake is to distance yourself from the cult of Breece D’J Pancake, an accretion that has formed around his writing since his suicide in 1979 at the age of 26.
There is certainly good writing here, but Pancake wasn’t quite yet the new Hemingway of his jacket copy or the savior of modern fiction. Several of his stories are well-polished gems, but more than a few (“The Mark,” for example) are simply incomprehensible.
In these twelve stories, in fact, there are several occasions when Pancake walks too far over the line that separates the effective, authentic use of slang, accent, and jargon from the creation of a text that is both alien and alienating, where the reader can barely find a toe-hold. Arguably, that makes the stories “true,” but it also effectively narrows their ability to communicate, which is something a writer ought to be concerned about.
Taking all twelve as a whole, meanwhile, there’s a sameness to their language and tone that wears much less well than many of Pancake’s admirers seem to recognize, especially the considerable group of them who are worshipful to such a distorted extent that one begins to to suspect it is the mythology of the poète maudit that appeals and not the writer .
Since Pancake’s death, meanwhile, the boom in “new” Southern writing has brought us a bumper crop of writers who explore many of the same issues of class, family, origin, geography-as-destiny, and cultural estrangement that were Pancake’s palette (Chris Offutt and Keith Banner come immediately to mind, but there are dozens).
Pancake’s work, then, is foundational but he’s not necessarily the best at the game. More than anything, I am unmoved by Pancake’s adherence to what I would call the “Iowa Writers’ Workshop” school of story-writing, which is the inclination to write muscular, painstakingly crafted stories that are linguistically imposing but in which ABSOLUTELY NOTHING HAPPENS.
They become (not just Pancake’s stories, but the orthodoxy as a whole) sedulous but frequently overconscientious miniatures and I find them, frankly, to be a bore. Yes; it’s a matter of personal taste, but I want a short story to tell me a story, not give me ten carefully honed minutes in the life of someone whom the author examines microscopically but to no apparent purpose.
The fact that the arts-reward system overly privileges this style in short fiction (what my dear friend and mentor Jim Colbert called the “pif” story–short for “epiphany,” meaning that the reader is supposed to search hard for deep moments of change, illumination, or psychological revelation in the mica-thin layers of lapidary prose) fails to convince me of its intrinsic worth.