If Breece D’J Pancake is a writer you have never heard of before, than at least he has the advantage of having a name you will never forget. Already blessed with an unusual first name, and an anglicised surname more suited to a menu, he was gifted the aristocratic D’J after a magazine misprinted his initials and he decided to keep it. So far, so lucky, except that the most likely reason you haven’t heard of him is that he killed himself in 1979 a couple of months before his twenty-seventh birthday, becoming yet another American writer to end their career in suicide. By that time he had published the six stories featured here along with six others which appeared in print posthumously in 1983 in the more plainly titled The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake.
The stories are all set in Pancake’s native West Virginia among the rural poor and dispossessed. Not surprisingly, many of them centre on the idea of escape. In the title story the narrator, Colly’s, old girlfriend, Ginny, returns home to visit. Ginny is happy to let him sleep with her, but their old plans of moving to Florida together are now firmly in her past. Colly’s fruitless search for trilobites on Company Hill seems to represent his belief that he will find what he’s looking for locally, a belief that does not remain intact to the end of the story:
“I’ll spend tonight at home. I’ve got eyes to shut in Michigan – maybe even Germany or China, I don’t know yet. I walk, but I’m not scared. I feel my fear moving away in rings through time for a million years.”
In a number of stories a character who escapes is similarly contrasted with a character who stays. In ‘First Day of Winter’, Hollis feels abandoned on his failing farm by his brother Jake:
“Hollis sat by the window all night, staring at his ghost in glass, looking for some way out of the tomb Jake had built for him.”
(The phrase “ghost in glass” rather than “ghost in the glass” gives an indication of Pancake’s skill with language). Elsewhere characters are aware that escape will not always provide the answer. In ‘A Room Forever’ the narrator picks up a young prostitute. He tries to convince her she “ain’t cut out for it” but fails, follows her afterward to a bar, caring enough only to tell the barman when he discovers her out the back with her wrists cut.
“I stop in front of the bus station, look in on the waiting people, and think about all the places they are going. But I know they can’t run away from it or drink their way out of it or die to get rid of it.”
In ‘The Salvation of Me’, the narrator dreams of leaving to work for a radio station, but it is his friend Chester who makes it out, leaving for Broadway. He describes Chester’s success as a “germ” that “made any kid on the high-school stage think he could be Chester”:
“A couple of the first ones killed themselves, then the real hell was watching the ones who came back when pop told them there was no work at the [gas] station for faggots.”
The tension between decisions to stay or leave is discussed by characters in ‘In the Dry’:
“’You-all pity me my ways, don’t you? Only I’m better off – ain’t a thing here to change a one of you.’
‘Ain’t nothing to make us any worse off, if that’s what you’re after.’”
It would be fair to say, then, that the characters in Trilobites & Other Stories are generally unhappy, and have good reason to be. Often the best Pancake can offer us in terms of optimism is akin to the realisation of the boxer Skeevy at the end of ‘The Scrapper’:
“His head cleared, and he knew he could get up.”
It seems that Vintage hope that Trilobites will replicate the success of Stoner. This seems unlikely: its characters are not always unsympathetic but that sympathy can be more difficult to locate; the language, particularly the dialect inflected speech, is more difficult; and short stories, anyway, are a less favoured genre. However, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t deserve to.