John and Breece: Casey reflects on the summer's hottest re-release
"As for Breece D'J Pancake: I give you my word of honor that he is merely the best writer, the most sincere writer I've ever read. What I suspect is that it hurt too much, was no fun at all to be that good. You and I will never know."
–Kurt Vonnegut in a letter to John Casey last month
A native of Milton, West Virginia, Breece D'J Pancake arrived in Charlottesville in 1975 to enroll in UVA's writing program, and although he had published only a few stories by the time of his untimely death, he had already established himself as a unique voice.
Set in the underprivileged areas of West Virginia, his stories are populated with characters weary from emotional isolation, adrift amid unfulfilled wishes, whose only companions are distant memories and missing persons.
The talent evident in these writings earned him a spot in the classes and in the hearts of such famous UVA teachers as John Casey and James Alan McPherson.
"He was probably among the top five writers that I've seen," says John Casey, a professor of creative writing at UVA for the last 30 years and a close friend to Pancake.
"I learned a lot from Breece. I would even cite him as an influence," says Casey, author of Spartina, the 1989 novel that won the National Book Award.
"I don't think I could have done a really pissed-off Rhode Island fisherman. To do it spare and without a trace of self-pity so that he was just pissed off, pure, is something I think that I didn't get from Breece personally but from the way he could write sometimes," Casey says.
Four years after his student's death, Casey assembled for publication a collection of Breece's stories called simply The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake. Reprinted this summer by Little Brown and highlighted in the August issue of Vanity Fair, the anthology book-ended by a foreword by McPherson and two afterwords (by Casey and Andre Dubus III) is a vibrant portrait of a writer and his emotions as revealed through his characters. I recently spoke with Casey about Breece and the stories that keep him alive to a growing body of readers.
Why do you think you and Breece became so close?
Breece would've been 22, 23– but he seemed older. He'd been around the block a couple of times. And when someone is writing that well, I know how hard it is for them to do what they're doing; they know that I know how hard it is, and that creates an enormous bond right there.
Do you have a favorite story?
"Trilobites" and "In the Dry" are two of the really good ones. "The Honored Dead" I also like. "The Mark" is my favorite in a way. It's the only one from a female point of view, but he does it well. I used to say that there are 12 stories in the book, and five of them are just clearly out-of-the-park home runs. There's only one that I thought might not be as good as the others, but it turns out to be a favorite of a lot of people: "Time and Again," the one about the guy who picks up hitchhikers and feeds them to his hogs. It's kind of gothic. But a lot of people love it.
In your afterword, you write: "A theme of Breece's life and stories is the bending of violence into gentleness." What do you mean by that?
Well, he really wanted to have the virtues of compassion, gentleness, and to be not so much mild because I think I quote in [my afterword] one of his favorite biblical texts: "I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew thee out of my mouth." [Revelation 3:15-16]
He knew he had a terrible temper, and he really was trying to curb it. But he had this urge towards kindness and attachment it was in him and it kept getting fouled up by his just being overtaken by anger. And that was part of the struggle he had.
How do you think Charlottesville or UVA affected Breece?
Well, you can read Jim's account, and I think I touch on this too. There's a phrase in Jim's foreword where he says, "the genteel hush of Wilson Hall," which I think overstates it. I never thought Wilson Hall was all that genteel. I mean, it's cinderblock, for God's sake. And they repainted it, and it began to look like a cruise ship or something like that. It had that sort of blue safety line along the wall. And the offices weren't big enough to swing a cat in.
On the other hand, the more depressing part is you walk up the lower part of Rugby Road after a lot of frat parties and you see all their fancy cars and beer cans and whiskey bottles, and you think, "What the hell are these guys doing?" You get a lot of spoiled brats, and it doesn't take but a few to make the whole place look like a haven for spoiled brats. Because they aren't all spoiled brats. I go to my classes having waded through the beer cans on lower Rugby Road and I think, "No, these are wonderful kids." But you can get a little bit assailed, as I say, by that top layer of foam. It can look a little daunting, especially if you can't put it in perspective and see that it is just a layer of foam.
And Breece already had a chip on his shoulder about that...
Yeah, he did. But it was very mixed because he had an admiration for traditional virtue as well as a kind of, "Goddammit, the whole system stinks."
It's easy to have one or the other, but if you have both at once it pulls you apart. Of course, the intelligent response is to recognize both of these poles. There is a lot of rottenness, and there's also an amazing amount of... odd goodness. But he certainly spent a lot of time in a kind of almost involuntary envy and contempt with both.
The other thing is people thought of him as a loner. But after he died, I was amazed to find out how many people he had some kind of friendship with. Everyone's life story has several versions. But there's no question that his pain reached way down inside of him and was a frustration at the way people ought to behave and the way things ought to be and the way people do behave and the way things aren't. He felt that very keenly, he wasn't about to shrug his shoulders.
What do you think Breece's lasting impact will be?
One of the satisfactions is that the book goes on and on and the ripples are still going on. It sounds strange to say it: 20 years. But 20 years is not quite enough. Let's see what happens in the next 10, 20. I think it will last. It won't date because the stories have all of the elements that can withstand time. And of course another way that a book lasts is that it actually preserves a way of life that people are interested in historically. And I think that would be a kind of lesser reason. To say, "This is what life was like in West Virginia." For those two reasons, but the first one is more powerful. The stories are very well constructed out of real emotion so that you have that sort of push and pull of strong wishes and strong desires that anyone of sensibility can recognize. I think that will keep it alive.
On April 8, 1979, in the yard of his rented Charlottesville cottage on Blue Ridge Lane, the 26-year-old UVA student and short-story writer placed the barrel of shotgun in his mouth and ended not only his young life but also a promising writing career.