The Secret Handshake
The short-lived literary career of Breece DʼJ Pancake and his roadmap to a world of oppressive poverty.
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Discussed: Coal Mines, Gastropods, Self-Myth, The University of Virginia, Ghosts, JT LeRoy, The Atlantic Monthly, Faulkner, Catholic Guilt, Flannery OʼConnor, Phil Ochs, Woodie Guthrie, Joe Hill, Frank Little, Regionally Specific Dialect, Turkles, “Trilobites,” Revelation 3:15–16, Union Carbide, Jayson Blair, “The Honored Dead,” Vietnam, Mound Builders, Johnny Reb, 8 April 1979
From 1961 to 1992, underneath the exclusive Greenbrier hotel of White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, the United States government built and maintained an extensive, highly secret, atomic bomb shelter for the members of Congress. Before the hiding place was exposed by a Washington Post reporter, the bunker had been outfitted with dormitories, staffed kitchens, subscriptions to Sports Illustrated (though one wonders about the perpetuity of both sports and subscriptions once the bombs start to fly), a room for the Senate, a room for the House, a hall for joint meetings, an internal power plant, seventy-four urinals, a television station with Capitol dome backdrop ready for emergency broadcasts, and even a weapons cache that included billy clubs for fighting off any radioactive locals who might try breaking down the two-foot-thick, steel-reinforced cement walls after the nuclear holocaust.
Though the Greenbrier is perhaps the best furnished, it is only one of many secrets hiding underneath West Virginia: poorly mapped coal mines, cavities thick with natural gas, forgotten Civil War cemeteries, and hills where gastropods sleep underneath the dirt in ridges rich with Carboniferous period fossils dating back three hundred million years to when the Mountain State was nothing more than swampland. Appropriately enough, the writer Breece DʼJ Pancake hails from this state, a land marked by inequities and secret tunnels. As his little-known body of work consistently prowls through dark territory, spelunking the depths of American desperation and poverty, the stories of Breece DʼJ Pancake could easily be added to this list of West Virginiaʼs underground secrets.
Born in 1952 to Helen and Clarence “Bud” Pancake, Breece was dead a mere twenty-six years later, leaving behind only one slim volume of prose, twelve stories as devastating as his premature death. Little, Brown published The Stories of Breece DʼJ Pancake in 1983, four years after his death. What his life lacked in length, it made up for in myth. Pancake has become legendary—in part because he let few people ever get close enough to know the truth, in part because creating legends was what he was born for. Stories, many of them true, like the one about how he stocked his University of Virginia refrigerator with squirrel meat or how his father and his best friend died in the same month or even how his ghost visits his family and friends, have been exchanged so many times between his rabidly devoted fans (including writers as diverse as Andre Dubus III and JT LeRoy) that the stories have grown malleable with handling.
Pancake often more closely resembles a character from fiction rather than one who wrote fiction. Consider his nearly unpronounceable middle name. The strangely enjambed initials are not his birthright but rather a typographical galley error made on “Trilobites” (1977), his first published story, by the Atlantic Monthly. Pancake liked the oddity of DʼJ and its nod to a skewed aristocratic membership. He adopted DʼJ as his own. Heʼs an invention, his own best character. His stubborn nobility, sly sense of humor, and tragic, untimely death make Pancake a shade of Faulknerʼs Darl, Twainʼs Huck Finn, and even Joyceʼs Michael Furey, coughing his young lungs up outside Gretaʼs window until finally surrendering to death. Pancake would be too perfect a creation for fiction if not for the fact that he was real.
The Stories of Breece DʼJ Pancake coils through West Virginiaʼs hills and river valleys with an intimacy generally reserved for the scaly underbelly of a black snake. This book is veined with tunnels, dim passages leading from one shadowy place to the next: mines, pregnancies, rifle barrels, abandoned gas wells, wars, dreams, unlawful and urgent sex, geology, desires strong enough to rot the mind, car accidents, failed escapes, and everywhere an anger so suppressed it squirms like a body buried alive. Memories pop up out of nowhere as surprising and devastating as heart attacks. Pancake is a Virgil of sorts, leading both his audience and his characters down into the underground where we become trapped by story lines so depressing they could keep a sensitive reader gratefully tucked in a fetal curl underneath the covers for the rest of the day. Take, for example, the New Yearʼs Eve story “A Room Forever.” The narrator is an Ohio River boat worker in town for the night waiting for the Delmar, the tugboat where he is second mate, to set sail for a month of eighteen-hour days. On account of the holiday, the sailor splurges and rents the big, eight-dollar-a-night room at a dive hotel.
I down my coffee too soon, burn my mouth. Nothing ever goes the way it should. I figure that is my bitch with New Yearʼs—itʼs a start all right—only I think back on parties we had in the Navy, and how we pulled out the stops the year we got to be short-timers, and it leaves me feeling lousy to sit here thinking about parties and work and the baby year and the old worn-out year. I want to haul my ass out of here—I have been inside too long. I get my jacket and watch cap, then stand outside my door and light a cigarette. The hall and stairwell are all lit up to keep away the whores and stumblebums. The door across the hall opens and the drag queen peeks out, winks at me: “Happy New Year.” He closes his door quietly, and I cut loose, kick the door, smudge the paint with my gum soles. I hear him in there laughing at me, laughing because I am alone. All the way down the stairs I can hear his laugh. He is right: I need a woman—not just a lousy chip—I need the laying quiet after that chip never heard of. When I come to the lobby full of fat women and old men, I think how this is all the home I have. Maybe I have bought this room forever—I just might not need another flop after tonight.
The story takes the reader from bad to worse as the narrator goes out for dinner only to return with a bottle of whiskey and a fourteen-year-old prostitute, a chip who is brand new to the occupation. “Itʼs nice here,” she says of the room. “Yeah. They spray regular,” he answers. With the rushed and awful deed done, he finally realizes that sheʼs just a little girl. He offers to put her up for a month at the hotel, to which she replies, “Why donʼt you just shut-the-fuck-up. Just pay me off, okay?” He pays. She leaves. No lying quiet after. In the ensuing silence the narrator thinks back to a time in high school when he dated a girl named Jane.
Her parents left us alone in the living room, but her poodle kept screwing at my leg. There we were trying to talk and her dog just kept humping my leg. I think Iʼd like to get a car and go back looking for that dog, but it is always just like that—a waste of time and money.
Pancake presents this flashback as summary to the exchange with the prostitute, as if to say here we are, all of us, innocently just trying to talk, when weʼre attacked by our own horrible, animal-like (even worse, poodle-like) sexual desires and a loneliness so deep that a teenagerʼs flat, numb body is the only comfort in the world. This sort of uplifting conclusion is standard Pancake.
Having converted to Catholicism in his mid-twenties, he was haunted by a sexual guilt that bordered on misogyny. Novelist Cynthia Kadohataʼs excellent essay on Pancake, published by The Mississippi Review, details how he felt about women:
To put it mildly, Pancake was old-fashioned about women—chauvinistic would probably be more accurate. His mother says he would not remain in a relationship where a woman was sleeping with him, because he didnʼt respect that. He didnʼt believe women should sleep with men they didnʼt know very, very well, though on weekly outings at a bar he spoke hornily of wanting to sleep with women. It was women—ladies—who were not supposed to sleep with men. He was appalled when a date brought birth control and a tooth-brush when they went out, and he was even more appalled another time when someone told him sheʼd had an abortion.
And as the narrator in “A Room Forever” predicts, “She will never get any breaks.” He sees the fourteen-year-old later that night at a bar where she is already quite drunk. “I donʼt guess she knows she canʼt drink her way out of this,” he thinks. He keeps an eye on her and when he sees her seat has been vacated he follows her out the back door. It is raining and cold. The girl has “cut both wrists down to the leaders,” and is lying in a pool of her blood in the alley. The narratorʼs thoughts turn toward raw sewage flowing into the river. He calls the cops and disappears, thankful that he has not “gotten that low.” And when the story ends, the readers and the characters are all left at the bottom of a hole so deep it took Pancake twenty-six years to dig it.
Part of Pancakeʼs attraction to the lowly follows a great Southern tradition in literature, a tricky jig that pied-pipers readers down from Hurricane, West Virginia, to Hades. Flannery OʼConnorʼs wonderful stories of depravity and destruction spring to mind. But there is another part of Pancake, a part that is like no other writer in the world because for every one of OʼConnorʼs “Good Country People” or “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” stories that dead-end in the lowdown, thereʼs a “Revelation”—a story that lifts straight up to heaven. Thereʼs no revelation in Pancake. Thereʼs no almost-heaven in his West Virginia.
Pancakeʼs book is at times so depressing, his characters so destructive and melancholy, that they attract readers the way a dark and stormy tough guy, a rebel without a cause, might attract a young woman. But thereʼs a purpose to these blues. Under the banner of melancholy, Pancakeʼs stories act as road maps to the disasters that the oppression of poverty can wreak on a life. He is a black shadow of political songwriters like his hero Phil Ochs (“I wonʼt be laughing at the lies when Iʼm gone”) and Woodie Guthrie; of old-school agitators like Joe Hill and Frank Little—union outsiders brought in to encourage pro-labor sentiment, men who sometimes had more education than the miners they were there to help, men who stuck out, and so, too often, got shot down. Pancake is a lot like these men—only his way to stir people up starts by bringing them down to see what hard times really look like.
Content and character are not Pancakeʼs only victims. His language, like West Virginia, is pocked with sinkholes. There are chasms in his sentences where sense is lost. There are passages that are so regionally specific they seem to be written in code.
“Whadya know, Mad Man?” Estep said as Buddy climbed in, coughing.
“Answer me this—Whyʼd you reckon Curt wants props for?”
“To shore the damn face, dumb-shit.”
“Anʼ doghole that goddamn seam, too. Heʼs a olʼ-time miner. He loves doinʼ all that olʼ-time shit.”
“Whadya drivinʼ at?”
“How many ya reckonʼd walk out if Iʼs to dump the water Monday?”
Pancakeʼs language is like a “No Trespassers” sign on a kidʼs clubhouse. The trespassers are those among us who donʼt know what “prop” or “doghole” or “to dump the water” mean. Using language that shuts out a population of readers is a curious stance for a writer to take, but it works like a trick of reverse psychology. Rather than shutting readers out, Pancakeʼs language has the same effect as those warning signs: the secret handshake of his words only make a reader hunger for more.
Consider the regional fence around his own, most unusual name. Breece DʼJ Pancake. Pancake? Itʼs simultaneously a gorgeous down-home handle and an awkward arabesque for the non-native mind to wrap itself around. He graces his charactersʼ names with these same Southern curves: Colly, Reva, Cally, Skeevy, Hollis, Ottie, Bus, Chester, Dex, Alena, Cephus, Gibson, Trudy, Corey, Benny, Carlene, Clinton, Bo, Cuffy, Virg, Enoch, Beck, Brownie, Curtis, Buddy, Lindy, Lundy, Layman, Fuller, Ginny: a symphony of sounds that both delights and ruffles the ear. Perhaps Pancake installed this guard of highly regional, coded language for the readerʼs own protection. Enter at your own risk: once inside this book, itʼs a steep, caliginous slope to an underworld of brutality, incest, suicide, murder, cockfights, dead fathers, dead dogs, body parts, fisticuffs, mine shafts, rape, miscarriage, wife abuse, and a landscape strewn with derailed hope.
I take up my sack and gaff for a turkle. Some quick chubs flash under the bank. In the moss-dapples, I see rings spread where a turkle ducked under. The sucker is mine. The pool smells like rot, and the sun is a hardish brown.
I wade in. He goes for the roots of a log. I shove around, and feel my gaff twitch. This is a smart turkle, but still a sucker. I bet he could pull liver off a hook for the rest of his days, but he is a sucker for the roots that hold him while I work my gaff. I pull him up and see heʼs a snapper. Heʼs got his stubby neck, curved around, biting at the gaff. I lay him on the sand, and take out Popʼs knife. I step on the shell, and press hard. That fat neck gets skinny quick, and sticks way out. A little blood oozes from the gaff wound into the grit, but when I slice a puddle forms.
A voice says, “Get a dragon, Colly?”
The story “Trilobites” begins a million years ago when the mountains of West Virginia were still craggy, unworn by time and the rivers. Fast forward. Colly, the narrator, searches these hills for fossils but never finds a coveted trilobite. Still the search distracts him from the present where he is losing his familyʼs farm. Pancakeʼs stories are far more than just portraits of the downtrodden. Once heʼs got his reader in his underground lair, he becomes proud tour guide, pointing out all the sedimentary bands of his geology. The stories are layered—an eternal return that has slices of different centuries separated by eons, coexisting in the landscapes where they originally occurred.
On the surface the events in “Trilobites” are dusty and slow, nearly moving in geologic time. Colly visits the town coffee shop where he and Old Jim watch the lethargic hip sway of Tinkerʼs sister, another fourteen-year-old, as she waitresses. Collyʼs ex-girlfriend Ginny passes Collyʼs driveway and honks. The cane in Collyʼs fields turns purple with blight but itʼs too late to do anything about it. His mother stares out from the porch of their farm, watching, surrounded by nonaction. The world sits as still as the rocks in Collyʼs fossil collection, labeled, under glass, collecting dust in the long afternoon sun. But this stillness exists only above ground; under the surface the layers are volcanic and the pressure of memories builds up like a natural gas well, ready to explode at the first spark.
I slide her to the floor. Her scent rises to me, and I shove crates aside to make room. I donʼt wait. She isnʼt making love, sheʼs getting laid. All right, I think, all right. Get laid. I pull her pants around her ankles, rut her. I think of Tinkerʼs sister. Ginny isnʼt here. Tinkerʼs sister is under me. A wash of blue light passes over me. I open my eyes to the floor, smell that tang of rain-wet wood. Black snakes. It was the only time he had to whip me. “Let me go with you,” I say…
Whether Colly is remembering how his father beat him with the body of a dead black snake or the time he believed an airplaneʼs shadow was a pterodactyl flying overhead, moments plucked from long lost times crop up as bright red splotches of paint or blood or lava on the gray background, not so lost at all. They sneak into the present, stirring dangerous emotions, bubbling up from underground as igneous intrusions, striking unexpectedly.
Under the surface is where Collyʼs father hid a cache of stolen war loot on the banks of the Elbe. Under the surface is the once pure landscape where Colly imagines bison, cattle, and even George Washington walking, where trilobites hide. And under the surface is where a tiny piece of shrapnel embedded in the brain of Collyʼs father had sat undisturbed for years until the one day it decided to come out, enter his bloodstream, kill him instantly, and set off the storyʼs course of events. Colly is too young to run a farm alone. Trent the loansman, speaking in indirect, softly veiled terms, gets Collyʼs mom to sign away the deed on the farm. Trent plans to fill in the bottomland, raising the floodline, swallowing up Collyʼs fatherʼs grave and the turtles Colly loves under the rising water. His mother will move to Akron; Ginny, the ex, has already moved to Florida; and Collyʼs father is dead, leaving Colly with nowhere he belongs. “I was born in this country and I have never very much wanted to leave,” he says. He is a sucker for the roots that hold him, for wanting to be held, even if itʼs underwater drowning.
The One Big Union
The question of belonging or not belonging is central both to Pancake and to the history of West Virginia. In a landscape crawling with union workers, membership can mean life or death. Still Pancake features those characters who donʼt belong anywhere and thus allows himself to explore the twilight world of outsiders. John Casey, in his afterword to The Stories of Breece DʼJ Pancake, offers one of Pancakeʼs favorite Bible quotations, Revelation 3:15–16.
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.
During his time as a student at the University of Virginia, Pancake allowed his imagination to create his persona, playing the six-foot-two, sandy-haired mountain boy who was at times so poor he was reduced to eating roadkill. In 1977 UVA was no epicenter of diversity, and so Pancake was often the object of his classmatesʼ ridicule, a sad situation if there had been any truth behind it. The truth is that Pancake was no hillbilly. He only chose to play that part, selecting himself for outcast, selecting himself for suffering. He took the hard road, opting out of the lukewarm life his father had worked for about thirty years at Union Carbide to provide. Pancake had been born firmly in the middle class, and despite all his intimate knowledge of the lowdown and impoverished, despite all the squirrel meat he squirreled away, despite his long, tall, dusty blond swagger in dirty boots, the class of people Pancake both wrote about and emulated was not the class he came from.
There is a flavor of disgraced New York Times writer Jayson Blair in Breece DʼJ Pancake—both of them making up stories about Jessica Lynchʼs hometown. The only difference is that Pancake got it right. Pancake disguised himself as part of the underclass so he could slip in among them and write about them. His work raises the question: Who owns experience? Can a Laplander write about how it feels to be a Native American? The answer is not always a resounding yes, though it ought to be. Fiction that does not study the Other begins to resemble a dead end—one Pancake refused to go down.
The South Will Rise Again?
One of Pancakeʼs most delicate pieces, “The Honored Dead” tells the story of two friends: Eddie, who died in Vietnam, and the narrator, who is wracked with guilt for falsifying his medical exam and avoiding the draft. The story begins with the narrator comforting his crying daughter. Just as in “Trilobites,” Pancake starts this story in a time now far gone, suggesting the stubborn ramifications of decisions made long ago.
Yesterday I told her patches of stories about scalpings and murders, mixed up the Mound Builders and the Shawnee raids, and Lundy chained that with the burial mound in the back pasture. Tomorrow Iʼll set her straight. The only surefire thing I know about Mound Builders is they must have believed in a God and hereafter or they never would have made such big graves.
“The Honored Dead” meanders, beautiful as a stream in summer. Plot runs thin outside the narratorʼs draft-dodging guilt and his worry that his daughter might actually be Eddieʼs. But the flashbacks and dialogues that come in between are devastating. In a mere ten pages Pancake creates a portrait of what it has meant to fight for West Virginia over the past three hundred years. There are the Shawnee Indians. Thereʼs the narratorʼs grandfather running from Baldwin men, interloping thugs brought in to break mine strikes: “I could hear the Baldwins and their dogs in the dark woods, and I could remember the machine guns cutting down pickets, and all I could think was how the One Big Union was down a rathole.” Thereʼs the narratorʼs father, who remembers fighting in World War II trenches. And thereʼs Eddieʼs tortured letter home from Vietnam that is described by the narrator:
He asked if I remembered him teaching me to burn off leeches with a cigarette, Eddie swore he learned that in a movie where the hero dies because he runs out of cigarettes. He said he had plenty of cigarettes. He said he could never go Oriental because they donʼt have any hair on their twats, and he bet me he knew what color Ellenʼs bush was. He said her hair might be brown, but her bush was red. He said to think about it and say Hi to Ellen for him until he came back. Sometimes I want to ask Ellen if she saw Eddie on his last leave.
Even the ghosts of Civil War soldiers creep through:
Coach said I couldnʼt 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 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 Shermanʼs 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.
Pancake suggests that the Civil War (and perhaps all the others) was lost in West Virginia not because the North overpowered the South, but because the Confederates were poisoned by their own water, water the narrator washes his hair in every night.
“The Honored Dead” is one of the few stories in this collection to raise the specter of the Civil War outright. Pancakeʼs South holds its memories of the Civil War in a quiet place, just north of bitter. It feels right; the landscape where the war was actually fought still does bear scars. Southern highways are speckled with brown road signs pointing towards battle sites and memorials. The carnage pops up with a frequency that makes the war impossible to forget. The memory is still very alive, and perhaps the oddest manifestation of this is the rebel cry still heard today and often spotted on bumper stickers: “The South Will Rise Again.” Itʼs a perplexing cry. What does it mean? Rise to what? Rise to exact revenge on the North? Blue States vs. Red States? Whatʼs strangest is that it hides a hidden insult toward the South. It supposes that the South is currently sunk, a stance that Pancakeʼs stories seem eager to defend even when the weight of such sorrow became too much for the writer to bear.
On April 8, 1979, just shy of his twenty-seventh birthday, Pancake sat on a folding chair beneath a blossoming fruit tree. He placed a gun inside his mouth and pulled the trigger. He became a victim of the depths his own stories plumbed. Mrs. Helen Pancake, in a letter to James Alan McPherson, one of Breeceʼs professors and friends at UVA, says, “God called him home because he saw too much dishonesty and evil in this world and he couldnʼt cope.” Pancake distilled the power of sadness like moonshine, extracting the most potent drops for his stories, sending it like a hard pinch to a numb world that twenty-six years after his death has yet to awaken.