After the suicide and after the stories themselves there is usually the same conversation about Breece D’J Pancake. This revolves around a general question: Was he the real deal?
It’s been stated in a lot of different ways, but that has been the basic mystery for some: Real deal or simply laying on the hillbilly? This is usually blended with a question and conversation about how good Pancake actually was or wasn’t at his chosen craft. Some will refer to him as the best writer of his generation; others say this is pure romanticism and that those who are saying as much are allowing sympathies to cloud their judgement.
Set all this aside. Placing Appalachians under a microscope to see if they are what they say they are, or what their work says they are, is baffling to me. Do people expect us to deny our heritage? Most likely, they do. Because for many of us this is the case. We relocate, work extra-hard to adopt the Midwestern accent (though many believe they are getting rid of an accent) and begin to actually make themselves believe they came from somewhere else, or are now better because they have shed their old selves, their hillbilly selves. It’s a shame. The public, these people’s adopted communities, say what you are isn’t good enough, or is not good at all, and you try to make changes. Worse of all, this takes place without so much as a word spoken. We know that changing ourselves is expected, and, for the most, we comply.
To question Pancake’s authenticity is, as I said, baffling. Where does this question come from? On occasion I’ve seen thread comments on various articles on Pancake that point to his overuse of certain language, characters, and situations. The fact of the matter is that when you write about Appalachia, these characters, the language, and the situations are going to be abundant and, in the case of the latter, just a bit hard to understand. It in no way means that somebody is, as my grandmother used to say, stretching their blanket.
However, it’s not only Pancake’s work but also the way in which he conducted himself that is scrutinized. Was it all a show? Even McPherson was unsure when he first met the lanky boy from Milton wandering the halls proclaiming to fellow students he was Jimmy Carter and was running for president. My thought is that this was entirely a show on Pancake’s part. He was uncomfortable at the University of Virginia, feeling less than, lower than, less smart, more hillbilly, unacceptable. He created a persona while also poking fun at himself, beating the jokers to the joke. It’s a way of life for Appalachians who travel or have extended stays outside the mountains.
So there is some truth to the idea that Pancake put on a show from time to time. Fights in bars, carrying a line of freshly caught fish around campus, etc. He was cultivating what writers today call a brand. But he was lucky: the brand was already there; he only had to add some highlights. And no one should blame him, because this did not carry over to his stories. At one time, I thought it did. While reading his story “Hollow” there’s an entire series of dialogue that is nearly hieroglyphic. Not to be immodest, though, in saying that I had no problem understanding what was being exchanged between characters, but it is highly unlikely someone outside Appalachia would have any idea what was being talked about.
“Face is a gettin’ pretty tall,” Estep said. Buddy could feel the voice in his back.
“Same thin’s happenin’ up Storm Creek,” he said, pulling the sagging padding up to his knees.
“An’ Johnson’s scratch done the same.”
“Curt,” Buddy shouted, “when’d they make a core sample on this ridge?”
“Hell’s bells, I don’t know,” he said, trying to work in another wedge. “Musta been sixty years ago,” Estep said. “Recollect yer grandaddy shootin’ at ’em. Thought they’s Philadelfy law’ers.”
“Yeah,” Buddy laughed, remembering the tales.
From near the opening, where the rest of the relay gathered for air, came a high-pitched laugh, and Buddy’s muscles went tight.
“One a these days I’m gonna wring that Fuller’s neck,” he said, spitting out the sweet tobacco juice.
Every time I read this I wonder if Pancake was, at this point in the story, trying too hard, or if something else was going on. Maybe he wanted these sections to remain forever unclear to the readers elite, as it were, while offering it as an extended hand to fellow Appalachians. I only know what’s happening and being discussed in the scene because I once worked in coal mining. That’s not to say I worked worked in the coal mines the way you might think. I didn’t dig coal. I didn’t run a roof bolter or a miner. I sure wasn’t an electrician or foreman. But I did work at a coal mine for a little over a year during my first two semesters in college, mostly doing what they refer to as picking rock. I also charged scoops and marked the belt line for tears, while functioning, for about half of the shift, as a night watchman. The actual term for what I was, the term you’ll hear in the mountains, is an outside man. And I’m fully aware that without going into any further detail, a great number of readers will have no full understanding of what I’ve mentioned about this job. To leave it unsaid is to make some type of authorial statement, there is no doubt. Yet even as I write this there’s a quiet burden on me at the thought of going into all the details; they might be new details to some, but they’re part of everyday life for Appalachians. Bits of information such as keeping a piece of chalk (usually yellow) in your pocket while at the beltline to pick rock. See a tear, swipe the section of belt with the chalk. Belt gets repaired. I used this exact detail in a story of mine years ago, and I remember explaining more than I needed to at that time. It takes a fair amount of courage to put a thing out there in a story and let the reader have at it in whatever way their mind can. It’s a risk, but one Pancake needed to take, I believe. The risk was important.
Maybe Pancake used this language to distance himself from the reader; maybe he had nothing more than specificity in mind when writing a scene such as that in “Hollow.” But it was no secret that as much as Pancake wanted acceptance from those in the upper crust of society, both socially (where he was woefully inept) and in the literary world he also hoped for equality, or something close to equality. In letters home is where we find the most evidence for this.
In a letter written to his mother, as were so many of his letters while away from Milton, he talks about his landlords, the Meades, and how they slight him (my word not his) during plans for dinner for the English department at UVA. The key point is that the Meades asked him to tend bar, giving an extremely racist and classist reason for doing so that I won’t even give voice by mentioning here. So much could and should be gleaned from this, and especially as it relates to the question of whether or not Pancake was “the real deal.” Enduring treatment such as this clears Pancake as a perfectly authentic member of the Appalachian tribe as far as his status was concerned—undervalued at every turn, deemed immediately less intelligent, perceived as desperate, without options, and on and on. This leaves then the question of his merit as a writer of his generation.
He was not the greatest writer of his generation. Let’s get that out of the way. He was unbelievably good. Read “Trilobites” and tell me there is a better crafted story written in the past fifty years. It’s not the best story in the past half century. But let’s also be clear: it is as good as any story written in the last fifty years. And therein lies some of the confusion. I’ve contributed to my fair share of the confusion, too. Not more than two years ago I shared something about Pancake on social media and called him the greatest short story writer of all time. Call it over-exuberance, writer worship, a deep need to claim something, anything, for Appalachia. All three, really. I’d have to claim all three, and probably more reasons beyond that for my exalted crowning of Pancake. The simplest would be that I wholeheartedly believe his short stories (with the exception of one or two from the collection, and I’ll not name which ones, as any reader can usually feel the difference) can stand with any written in the English language. That an Appalachian possessed this amazing gift and had the opportunity to showcase it at a national level was nothing short of stars aligning or some other miracle high as the vault of heaven. Talent and opportunity? Unheard of.
In truth, it’s not unheard of, at least not in most parts of this country, that folks with talent can often find doors opening for them whereas before there was only darkness and the bare hint of a room. In Appalachia, however, the number of creative people (particularly musicians and storytellers) who have more talent than they seriously know what to do with, rarely find a way to create an opportunity, let alone have one appear before them. For the opportunity doesn’t come around unless it’s formed by the talented. Pancake worked hard for and was awarded his fellowships and grants; he gained entry into the master’s program at UVA through the sheer will inherent within his writing and his clear vision for what he wanted to do with it. If at any point, Pancake had released his grip and taken a moment to catch his breath, the entire thing would have slipped away.
At least that’s the notion.
It’s the notion for a lot of Appalachians. If fortune turns its gaze to you, it’s best to simply sit very still, pay close attention, and do anything and everything you can to hold on, remember everything, take notes, and, of course, realize that if at any point you relax, fortune will move on to the more attentive, the harder working.
Without presuming to speak for anyone else in Appalachia, you should know that, most of the time, the idea of being from the area is the last thing on my mind. As Milton, West Virginia was for Pancake, I’m sure, my little area of Pikeville, Kentucky is, most of the time, the entirety of my world. I read news headlines. Not the news, but the headlines. I see these stories flashing around on my social media accounts—a bill passes in Wyoming, the president makes a stop at the Hershey factory, the world’s oldest gorilla died, or any number of other world or national events, but those events might as well be taking place on the surface of Neptune for all the effect they have on me in Kentucky.
It’s fitting that America was very nearly called Appalachia, or fitting in my mind at least, as it is essentially its own country. I may occasionally be reminded there is a world that exists outside of Ratliff’s Creek and my own patch of it along Horseshoe Drive, but it’s always in passing, much the way Colly sees the shape of Florida along the concrete in the opening of “Trilobites.”
I see a concrete patch in the street. It’s shaped like Florida, and I recollect what I wrote in Ginny’s yearbook: “We will live on mangoes and love.” And she up and left without me—two years she’s been down there without me. She sends me postcards with alligator wrestlers and flamingos on the front. She never asks me any questions. I feel like a real fool for what I wrote, and go into the café.
This dream of Florida is both the dream of true love and also the dream of getting out, getting away, moving on, the more exoctic the better. Mangoes, alligators, and flamingos will do just fine. And Colly resents Ginny for leaving him behind, not to mention that, in this situation, she might as well be on the surface of Neptune.
But for so many Appalachians, and this as clear in Pancake’s work as anywhere else, the victory party would begin the moment they make it out. It’s a sentiment not lost on people from the region; if we don’t move out of state, we at least spend a little time in Lexington.
In 1997 I moved away from the mountains. Well, away enough. I lived in Berea for about a year, working at UPS in Lexington and going to school at Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond. The interstate became familiar territory, despite being half asleep most of the time enroute to work and school. I recall Exit 77 only, and can’t be sure if it goes to Berea, Richmond, or Lexington. My general state was a constant and heightened awareness that I was 142 miles from home, about three hours by what was then the Daniel Boone Parkway. It mattered not in the least that I was still in Kentucky; it wasn’t my Kentucky.
What lingers most for me about that period of time was the sense of displacement. When on campus at EKU my spot was the library. Three or four floors up was a section of fiction and other subjects that was always empty as a tomb. Sometimes I’d read, sometimes I’d nap. Sometimes I just sat and felt how much easier it was to breathe in that space. But this scene, this strange chapter, would last only about a year before my first marriage ended and I returned home.
That morning I called my parents and, without offering many details, asked if they would come pick me up. I had no vehicle, and within the week I would have no place to live without paying another month’s rent, which simply couldn’t happen. That morning I sat outside the front door of the townhouse apartment and watched the parking lot entrance. There was a low flat cloud across the middle of the sky. It was the color of grief.
Later, I would read of Pancake’s stay in Charlottesville and wonder if he lacked only for a place to breathe and that, even if he did have that place, was that place enough to make a difference, if only for awhile? Because to understand Pancake or his work requires an understanding of how his Appalachia can turn on its residents, how it can, in its absence, create an isolation far deeper and more painfully lonely than even the thought of death.
Having a place claimed as my own in the library had done me no good. The air surrounding me felt alien, and it seemed to convert everything else into a non-reality. I bowled in the university’s bowling alley but can remember feeling like I watched the whole thing on television. I sat in the meditation chapel and tried to relax, to let the tension out of my muscles. There was an odd peace sitting there in the round, wooden room, daylight seeping in just enough to give everything a sepia tone. It was like returning to the womb, except this time you already knew all the hardness waiting outside.
I was a young father then, and this alone was enough to buckle me at times. I had to make sure I didn’t become my father, keep a full-time job, and carry a full load of college classes. It was kind of a wonder I even had the time to reflect on feeling displaced. But that’s the thing about the air around you, it’s easy to forget it’s there and still take it in.
Places outside of Appalachia exist in the periphery, the very side of the eyeline without very much deviation. And the same can be said in reverse. The last time Eastern Kentucky was in national news it was due to the pain pill epidemic. An entire region of people reduced to nothing more than zombies in need of the next fix and willing to steal anything not nailed down to get it. This was headline news for months and months, years and years. Newspapers ran numerous stories, usually a full, new series every week, local television stations were no doubt training the morning and evening anchors on how to pronounce Oxycontin and Xanax properly. Before that it was pot and before that it was moonshine (yes, some stereotypes are factually solid). And most might be surprised to learn that the drug problem is still here, only the substance has changed.
Once the pharmaceutical companies made billions by giving physicians a bonus-related incentive for writing the greatest number of prescriptions each month, they moved on, eventually settling a lawsuit that provided the region with millions of dollars, but, more importantly, acting as an admission, a confession, to once again preying upon impoverished people they knew would go for any escape available.
All this has done is make the local doctors we still do have scared to write anything stronger than a Tylenol 3, which generally cut off the supply line for the thousands and thousands of addicts that had been created over the past decade. Those addicts were never going to scratch their chins and get over it. No. They were definitely going to begin making meth by whatever means necessary. Sometimes this meant police officers entering houses after arrests to dismantle a meth “lab” made under someone’s kitchen sink.
Addiction is a major issue in Appalachia, especially in area. But it doesn’t define us as a people. It’s only part of the definition. For centuries we’ve kept some kind of artificial escape handy, and that moonshine/pot/Oxycontin/meth has always slowly moved over everything else in our lives, a kudzu plant turned in on itself.
In my mid-20s I worked as a news reporter at the now defunct Floyd County Times. Floyd County was adjacent to my own county of Pike and, I quickly found, was mired in court cases dealing with substance abuse. Courts and crimes was my primary source of news. The telling aspect of this trend of substance abuse wasn’t the dozens upon dozens of public intoxication, possession of a controlled substance, and possession of drug paraphernalia charges filed weekly in the county clerk’s office. The most telling detail was that many of the other charges filed also involved drugs. A theft by unlawful taking charge, once the county prosecutors dug in on the case, was revealed to be motivated by a need to buy drugs. The accused thief, for instance, would break into a junkyard, strip whatever from whatever he could find that might bring a little money. Maybe it would be a transmission he knew his neighbor needed and would buy; maybe it would be, if nothing else, copper stripped from an old electrical breaker box. Copper aluminum AC coils, if clean, would bring 95 cents a pound, a little less if the insulating wire was left on.
One case that comes to mind most frequently was a young guy who broke into his grandmother’s home late one night or early one morning, I can’t remember which, and confronted her while wearing a mask, demanding she give him her pain medication. The police report didn’t mention if the grandmother recognized her grandson’s voice, but I imagine she did. In any case, and for whatever reason, she decided at that moment not to comply. The grandson then beat her until she produced the medication. This was filed at the county clerk’s office as a second-degree assault charge, and, if seen on paper along with a list of other charges, would not stand out to anyone as a drug-related crime. So many crimes committed in Appalachia are drug-related. A county attorney once gave me an estimated number. He said about 85 percent of the charges filed in Floyd County involved some aspect of substance abuse.
Such an environment creates from the ground up a desperation that pairs perfectly with the kind of isolation that can keep us seemingly safe at home one moment and push us away the next, only to find the empty feeling of homesickness waiting wherever we run. Pancake knew this, had seen its effects on his neighbors, friends, and family. And it’s all there in his pages. When we read “A Room Forever,” one of several of Pancake’s stories in which the female is placed in a role in which she needs to be saved or another role casting her as depending on or at the mercy of men, desperation is a primary theme, along with Pancake’s old standby of the thwarted suitor. In this story, the circumstances are so bad for the underage prostitute that she would rather turn down the narrator’s offer of a helping hand and, instead, attempt to kill herself by slitting her wrists. We never learn if she is successful in her attempt, as the narrator scurries off to avoid being caught up in whatever might come from his association with her that evening. Chivalry followed by cowardice and shame. But the story paints a picture of the innocent faced with insurmountable odds, forsaken in their aloneness, and given a helping hand that looks suspiciously as hard-knuckled as the last to offer some form of help. It’s the story of Appalachia in many ways. One deal after the next aimed at improving our lives when the end goal is always to the benefit of those offering it.
Though the circumstances are forever in flux, the original bleak story of Appalachia predates even Pancake’s blighted country, but the heartache is always the same. The totality of hopelessness—a numbness as endless as existence before the creation—has maybe been here all along through different forms, specialized for each generation’s own shortcomings and the predators rising up from the muck seeking to attack those shortcomings. Considering this alongside authenticity, Pancake or anyone else living (surviving) day to day in Appalachia has no choice but to be the real deal. The real deal is a common life for us. It is the ordinary.
Sheldon Lee Compton is a short story writer and novelist from Kentucky. He is the author of seven books, most recently the novel Dysphoria: An Appalachian Gothic, and Absolute Invention from Secret History Books and is currently at work on his first nonfiction book, The Orchard Is Full of Sound: On Breece D’J Pancake and Appalachia.