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A Single Flame

The Stories of Breece D. J. Pancake Foreword by James Alan Mcpherson Afterward by John Casey Atlantic/Little, Brown & Co: 178pp: $13.50

By Robert E. Monror

BREECE PANCAKE's immensely powerful first book is sadly, his final work as well. A young writer of striking talent, he took his own life in 1979 at the age of 26. His stories remain, and these 12 of the best some of them previously published in The Atlantic, convey a deep understanding of life in the small farming hollows, coal mines and river towns of his native West Virginia hills. He evokes on a smaller scale, a local world as nuanced and distinctive as the Dublin of Joyce's Dubliners: the region itself with its hills, rivers, fogs, and wildlife, is a vital presence. Pancake constantly includes owls, opossums, and snakes, ironweed and sycamores: even buried bones and fossils in describing the lives he portrays. The situations of his strong. reticent, and trapped characters embody the unique milieu, but the problems they struggle with transcend it to reach universality.

Each character is distinct, but several of the male protagonists share characteristics and concerns, making much of the collection seem like loose variations on a theme. The young men try to farm the family land, are scab truck-drivers, sell whiskey at illegal cockflights of mine coal. Attached to the land, they feel trapped and in complete in their tedious, brutal jobs and empty relationships with family and women but a more satisfying life is out of reach. In "A Room Forever," a man who works on Ohio River tugboats begins to tire of life passed in hotel rooms and pool halls and in the company of prostitutes and winos. He knows that his job. "to watch barge rats and walk the wet steel edges," is dangerous, and the casualties of river accidents haunt him. But he resigns himself to an existence like the other river workers, who "are on for a month, off for a month and if they are lucky...can live that way for the rest of their days.

Dissatisfied as they are almost none of the characters leave the home turf of West Virginia. In "Trilobites," one of the finest stories the young man Colley is tempted to wander, to Michigan or may be even Germany or China. His father has died: his mother wants to sell the farm ("about the last real farm left") and move north: and he is no good at farming anyway. But he is held by the past his own past and the palpable history of the country he knows so well. When Colley thinks of leaving he sees "the spot of ground where Pop's fell and died while working the fields, and remembers "Pop's dead eyes looking at [him]." He thinks of the ancient river that flowed over his land before him or his tools and "can almost feel the cold waters and the tickling the trilobiters make when they crawl," and he stays.

In this and in most of the stories. Pancake deftly integrates meaning and feeling into physical sensations and images. At one point Colley listens to a real estate agent convincing his mother to sell the farm. Just returned from hunting turtle in one of the creeks on his land. He tells us that the smell of turtle has soaked between his fingers and that "it's the same smell as the pools. "We see that the land and nature of his home have soaked too deeply into his being for him to leave easily.

When Pancake ventures into over symbolism. He handles it lightly enough to be effective, not closing "Hollows" a story about a coal miner caught between hard times and a girlfriend who demands a more comfortable way of life is base with brief images of a bobcat corned by dogs.

THE PROSE resembles Hemingway's with crisp dialogue alternating with action described in clean, factual, concise sentence. All of the stories are short and the best ones achieve a density of expression that almost approaches poetry. As in Hemingway, crucial information often has to be drawn from understated detail, especially in the stories openings: Pancake hits the ground running and his beginnings are as tightly packed with meaning as his epiphanic endings. A story as concise as "The Honored Dead" has to be re-read at least once: a tour de force of technique, the story explores the complex mixture of guilt, hate, envy, love, and grief that William a young husband and father, feels for Eddie his oldest and best friend. The story jump about in time to tell how William avoided the draft and courted Ellen, his future wife, while Eddie was killed in Vietnam, and how Eddie possibly fathered Ellen's child before he was killed. Watching the little girl now, William wonders, and finds it "not so simple now as then, not easy to be a part of Ellen without knowing or wanting to know the web our kisses make."

Pancake shows us the sufferings of his characters unflinchingly: the stories are frank, sometimes brutal. In "The Honored Dead, "we see Eddie's corpse and pieces of another young body in plastic bags. And the protagonists inflict plain as well as suffer it. In "Hollow," the young man Buddy shoots a doe and indressing it cuts into" a swimming lump" an unborn fawn. The boatman in "A Room Forever" knows that he is physically hurting the young girl, "a kid playing whose, "who offers herself to him, but takes her just the same. Brutality isn't used for cheap thrills, though, but rather to sharpen the reader's awareness that injury and cruelly are facts of life. The moments show more clearly how the characters bear pain and the problems of conscience that come from causing it.

In Pancake's world, solace in love or other human contact is race. Lovers fail to understand each other, and sex is often distant an cold. Families are frequently pathological or simply nonexistent. In "The Mark," the woman Reva, having lost both her parents at once, marries a dull, insensitive man whom she ends up despising. She tries to hold on to shattered family and love by continuing an incestuous relationship with her brother Clinton, dreaming of him coming to her "not in his boatman's clothes, but as a naked Indian hiding in the pawpaw tunnels. "The writing is lyrical but is always darkened by tragedy and disappointment. At the end of the story, Reva meditates by the lock house in which she and Clinton made love: "Upstream, a deer's hoof sucked in the soft mud, but Reva kept watching the swimming moon-the same moon she knew Clinton watched with his cincinnate whore. "She realizes the hopelessness of her desires, and sets fire to the lockhouse in an act of despair and rejection.

A few of the stories are weak, understandably given the brevity of the author's creative life. But even the less effective selections are interesting, and the artistry of most of this work makes it an evocative elegy for a darkly beautiful region, and for the haunting struggles of the lives which unfold there. The edition includes a foreword by James Alan McPherson and an afterward by John Casey, writers with whom Pancake worked at the University of Virginia. The give us an idea of the talented troubled man who wrote these stories and tactfully offer a few hints to the mystery of his suicide. They confirm what the stories have already shown us: Breece Pancake intimately knew loneliness and failure of communication. Ironically, the deep knowledge which makes these stories so powerful may have helped make them his last.

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