“Somebody’s Got to Dig in the Damn Ground”

Breece Pancake, Stuck In West Virginia

I have heard it said that Georgians are unable to drive in snow, and that Arizonans go bonkers behind the wheel in the rain, but no true-blooded West Virginia boy would ever do less than 120 mph on a straight stretch, because those runs are hard won in a land where road maps resemble a barrel of worms with Saint Vitus’ dance.

                    --Breece Pancake, “The Salvation of Me”

Breece D’J Pancake was a short-story writer. Born and raised in Milton, West Virginia, he had publishing several stories in The Atlantic while he was still a young graduate student. He died in 1979, of a self-inflicted gunshot, at age 26. His work is collected in The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake, a slender volume of 12 stories published in 1983, and re-issued by Back Bay Books in 2002.

Pancake’s stories are all set in West Virginia. The characters are mostly men and mostly blue-collar: mechanics, coal miners, farmers. The stories are fairly similar in tone. Some plot elements recur in more than one story: hunting, shooting pool, scrounging auto parts to salvage an old decrepit car. Pancake even recycles lines of dialogue here and there. The stories are uneven in quality, the product of a still-immature artist, and as one reviewer observed, some of them have the feel of workshop pieces. But others succeed beautifully, balancing local color with compelling character studies. If he had lived longer, I’m sure Pancake would have felt a need to expand his range. What we have in this book is a 120-mph burst along a fairly short stretch of road: one writer’s thorough imaginative working-over of his childhood stomping grounds.

Here is the opening paragraph of “Trilobites,” the opening story of the collection:

I open the truck’s door, step out 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. It took over a million years to make that smooth little hill, and I’ve looked all over it for trilobites. I think how it has always been there and always will be, at least for as long as it matters. The air is smoky with summertime. A bunch of starlings swim over me. I was born in this country and I have never very much wanted to leave. I remember Pop’s dead eyes looking at me. They were real dry, and that took something out of me. I shut the door, head for the café.

This passage gives a good taste of Pancake’s style and encapsulates several of his most important themes. Every sentence here represents an element he will expand later in the story. Company Hill holds the crumbling buildings of the now-defunct coal company the town used to rely on. The Teays River is an extinct waterway that once flowed to the St. Lawrence, connecting West Virginia to Canada. Pancake often draws on history, geography or geology to link his mountains to other places and times. We see his flair for describing the outdoor environment, the way the air feels, the way the light behaves.

Then there is: I was born in this country and I have never very much wanted to leave. Notice how the dread of moving away crops up out of nowhere. The narrator is named Colly, his father has just died, and we soon learn that his mother wants to sell the family farm and move to Akron, where Colly could get a job at the Goodrich plant — the classic “Hillbilly Highway” scenario. Colly doesn’t like farming much anyway. His girlfriend Ginny has left him behind for college. All the pragmatic ties to his hometown seem to have been removed. The highway is beckoning.

All that notwithstanding, the story is an exploration of Colly’s ambivalence. At the conclusion we’re still not sure whether he’ll stay or leave. He’s stuck, between fitful urges to flee for good and tramp around the world, and the forces of blood and memory and plain old stubbornness that bind him to his home. Several of Pancake’s other protagonists are orphaned in some sense, with apparently little to lose by choosing to jump-start their lives in more promising surroundings. Invariably, they struggle with that choice, making it and unmaking it. The issue is raised in the first paragraph of the book and persists throughout.

What accounts for the ambivalence? Part of it is the gravitational pull of home and family and the familiar, which is universal. Part of it is an inferiority complex that is common to rural people and communities: Good enough for West Virginia might not be good enough in the wider world. But part of it is something peculiar to the West Virginian character, and the effort to describe it is what haunts me and attracts me about Pancake’s writing.

“Hollow” is a melancholy love story of sorts, but it also touches explicitly on vital issues in the history of Appalachia. Buddy is a coal miner facing a quandary. His girlfriend is threatening to leave him, to escape their poverty and hilltop isolation. He has a get-rich-quick plan to strip-mine a piece of land that his cousin owns. Buddy is racing the calendar to enact his plan before Sally moves out. His fellow miners argue for land conservation and honoring a labor contract, but those considerations hold little weight compared to the private pressures Buddy is under. The story explores how tradition and ambition can frustrate each other, and measures the comforts and constraints of life in a mining camp in the hollow, against the free but brutal and on-the-edge life of the “ridge runner.”

In “Fox Hunters,” Bo is a teenager whose father is dead from a mine accident and whose mother is an invalid. Bo falls under the sway of two influences: Lucy, who runs a boardinghouse in town, and Enoch, Bo’s employer at an auto shop, who sees himself as ushering Bo into the ways of manhood. Lucy may be the gentle, wise soul Bo takes her for, or she may be the whore and blackmailer that her reputation around town describes. As for Enoch, Bo hates him and all his violent, crude hunting buddies. But Bo needs to stay in Enoch’s good graces, to save his earnings, fix the old car in his mother’s barn, and eventually get out of town. Bo navigates this uncomfortable strait by becoming an enthusiastic liar and braggart, but the adults in his life are adept liars as well. On the climactic hunting trip, between swallows of bourbon, the men boast of having sexually assaulted a girl from Bo’s school. Bo is paralyzed between acquiescence to a rape and thoughts of murderous revenge. Truth is indistinguishable from lies, and it is a mystery whether the bonds among family and neighbors grow from love or guilty secrets.

Two of Pancake’s protagonists are foster children, now grown up, suffering from rootlessness and the cynical awareness that family ties are sometimes bought with a welfare check. “A Room Forever” depicts a young man who works as a mate on an Ohio River tugboat. For months at a stretch he works around the clock in dangerous conditions, risking drowning or electrocution. In between, he haunts the rough-and-tumble river towns, focusing on momentary pleasures: a decent boardinghouse room, hot coffee and doughnuts, the company of a prostitute. He feels himself stalked by fate, by the specter of impending disaster, and he struggles (and usually fails) to find the slightest hint of sympathy in his heart for his fellow lowlifes.

Ottie (“In The Dry”) lacks even a coherent sense of time and memory. He makes a visit back to West Virginia to see the Gerlocks, the foster family with whom he lived as a teenager. Ottie happens to arrive on the day of a family reunion. He has contempt for the relatives who have migrated to other states — “double-knit flatlanders” who come back for periodic visits to show off their success, at least in Ottie’s view. (The “double-knit flatlanders” remark stings: it could describe my parents and me, who moved away from West Virginia when I was in grade school.)

But this calls into question Ottie’s own behavior: coming back from out of state for a visit with no reason to expect a flattering reception. As a boy Ottie had thought he might find a safe home and a true family on the Gerlocks’ farm, but he had to leave after he was involved a car wreck that left Buster Gerlock paralyzed. Old Man Gerlock blames Ottie for the wreck, but in fact it was Buster’s fault. Ottie’s return visit is an opportunity for Buster to tell the truth and for Old Man Gerlock to accept Ottie, but Buster is silent and the old man is adamant. The blood relationship overrides the foster relationship. The reader can only wonder whether Ottie can accept this injustice, recover his view of “the hidden time” and forge a decent life.

One of Pancake’s best stories, “The Honored Dead,” unfolds with the Vietnam War as a backdrop. The narrator, William Haywood, has a lifelong friend named Eddie who enlists in the Navy, while William has misgivings and hopes to avoid service. (William describes a ploy that is supposed to drive up your blood pressure so you’ll fail your induction physical: clenching a bar of soap in your armpit. On a visit back to West Virginia I once heard my uncle and some of his friends talking about their Vietnam-era draft board experiences, and they mentioned this very technique.) Eddie is later killed in action, and his example, his sacrifice, both horrifies and shames William.

Time ago I stood with my father in the cool evening shadow of the barn to smoke; he stooped, picked up a handful of gravel, and flipped them away with his thumb. He studied on what I said about Canada, and each gravel falling was a little click in his thoughts; then he stood, dusted his palms. “I didn’t mind it too much,” he said. “Me and Howard kept pretty thick in foxhole religion — never thought of running off.”

“But, Dad, when I seen Eddie in that plastic bag ... ”

He yelled: “Why the hell’d you look? If you can’t take it, you oughtn’t to look. You think I ain’t seen that? That and worse, by god.”

William’s father elevates duty above experience. Necessary tasks wouldn’t get done if we paused to see things and respond to them. Don’t look if you can’t take it; don’t ask a question if you might not like the answer. Wartime military service is invoked in “Trilobites” as well as in “The Honored Dead.” For Colly’s father as well as for William’s, a tour in the Army is their life’s great adventure and chief opportunity to see the world outside West Virginia. Many real-life veterans of the World Wars didn’t go back “down on the farm.” But Pancake’s men did return home, and for them, the war experience accentuates the fatalism that is so typical of life and work in West Virginia. “Foxhole religion” keeps people putting one foot in front of the other, and keeps them firm in fulfilling their duty to their neighbor; it doesn’t make room for free thinking or an open search for meaning.

Coach said I couldn’t run track because anyone not behind his country was not fit for a team, so I sat under the covered bridge waiting for the time I could go home. Every car passing over sprinkled a little dust between the boards, sifted it into my hair.

I watched the narrow river roll by, its waters slow but muddy like pictures I had seen of rivers on the TV news. In history class, Coach said the Confederate troops attacked this bridge, took it, but were held by a handful of Sherman’s troops on Company Hill. Johnny Reb drank from this river. The handful had a spring on Company Hill. Johnny croaked with the typhoid and the Yankees moved south. So I stood and brushed the dust off me. My hair grew long after Eddie went over, and I washed it every night.

I love that passage: no nostalgia for the Lost Cause there. American artists have sometimes promulgated various prelapsarian myths: that prior to some historical milestone (before the Trail of Tears, before Appomattox, before the TVA) the country, or a region of it, was a harmonious Eden, with humankind and nature on the same side. Pancake is thoroughly unsentimental; he rejects any romantic myth of a heroic or Edenic past.

He is similarly unsentimental, if not bleak, in his outlook on the future:

I worked up the guts: “You reckon I could go to college, Dad?”

“What’s wrong with farming?”

“Well, sir, nothing, if that’s all you ever want.”

He crossed the cane rows to get me, and my left went up to guard like Eddie taught me, right kept low and to the body.

“Cute,” he said, “real cute. When’s your number up?”

I dropped my guard. “When I graduate — it’s the only chance I got to stay out.”

[ ... ]

[Dad] started up: “Everybody’s going to school to be something better. Well, when everybody’s going this way, it’s time to turn around and go that way, you know?” He motioned with his hands in two directions. “I don’t care if they end up shitting gold nuggets, somebody’s got to dig in the damn ground. Somebody’s got to.”

Duty ranks above education as well, according to William’s father: the duty of military service and the obligation to be useful. Going to college, trying to set one’s own destiny, is frivolous in the father’s view. It should be enough for William to be needed, and to serve in the role life offers him. In this conflict between duty and self, William gropes his way to a rough compromise. He does not follow his father’s choices blindly, and he retains a detached self-aware quality. But William also embraces his own duty as a father and husband, and in a certain sense chooses to step into Eddie’s identity, remain in their hometown, and live Eddie’s life in his friend’s place.

Again, notwithstanding West Virginia’s baleful history with coal mining and absentee ownership and all the rest, there is no Golden Age to hearken back to. Life was always hard in West Virginia, even for the Shawnees before white men showed up. People settling in the area knew they were making a hard, perilous bargain. It is not easy to break that ground with a plow. It is risky and expensive to get at the timber and the coal.

Yet mountain people take pride in the knowledge that West Virginia’s timber helped build America, and her coal has fueled America. There is nobility and integrity in labor, quite apart from any reward derived from it. As famously rugged as the West Virginia landscape is, the people are even more rugged, more wild and wonderful, inscrutable, sometimes harsh but sometimes generous and self-sacrificing beyond reason. Remember that one of the state’s great folk heroes is John Henry — who held a contest with a machine, and died with his hammer in his hand.

I prefer not to dwell too long on the circumstances of Breece Pancake’s life and death. (For readers interested in those circumstances, The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake has a Foreword and Afterword by two of Pancake’s writing teachers, who indulge in armchair psychology.) I would only speculate that he reached an impasse in his interior life like many of his characters experience, a Gordian knot of contradictory motives and values. He got stuck; he found himself unable to reconcile his vision of life as a writer with the place and the code that had formed him in his youth. Breece Pancake’s stories are richly evocative of the mind of a young man in his turbulent teens and twenties. It is a shame he cannot grow old along with his readers. But Pancake’s unique merit is in his portraits of mountain people, in their proud, stoical, irrational, self-confounding fullness.