What I'm reading this week

I had a very fine creative writing professor at Virginia named John Casey. John, in addition to being the author of a truly wonderful book called Spartina (winner of the 1989 National Book Award), is also a great recommender of books. I was a moron when I was in his class  writing shitty/lazy fiction and spending more time drinking than reading, but I did cop on eventually and start taking some of John's recommendations later in life. (Some winners he has given me over the years include Tom Keneally and Patrick White; I came to Sebald on my own, but I remain convinced that if I had shown any inkling in that direction, it would have come from John.) 

But the very first recommendation John ever gave me was a short story writer name Breece D'J Pancake. I remember it clearly because it was the first day of class and it was such a funny name that I assumed, naively, wrongly, wrong-headedly, that he was the kind of post-modernist, experimental writer that at the time I was eschewing. The 'D'J' was in fact a clerical error on the part of the Atlantic, an error that Pancake elected to keep as his own. 

I am just now reading Breece D'J Pancake, having stumbled upon his name again while reading Andre Dubus III's Townie. The lot sum of the man's published work is one slim volume of stories, the majority of which are set in Pancake's home state of West Virginia. They are bleak, often violent stories that feel like you are like standing in the bottom of a dark well, looking up through the murk at the 'gray grin of light at the mouth' and knowing you can never reach it. 

They are not regional stories — they are too universal for that. Jon Michaud wrote in the New Yorker that they are moral stories at their core, asking "again and again how one should behave in hopeless circumstances."

They do speak with the voice of an isolated region, however. John writes in his afterward: "Almost all his stories are set in the part of West Virginia that he came from, and he knew that from top to bottom. He knew people's jobs, from the tools they used to how they felt about them. He knew the geology, the prehistory, and the history of his territory, not as a pastime but as such a deep part of himself that he couldn't help dreaming of it. One of the virtues of his writing is the powerful, careful gearing of the physical to the felt."

I don't know if this story is true, and I don't have the guts to ask John, but Wikipedia references a letter the Vonnegut wrote to John after Pancake's suicide in 1979: 

"I give you my word of honor that he is merely the best writer, the most sincere writer I've ever read. What I suspect is that it hurt too much, was no fun at all to be that good. You and I will never know."

I can give it no higher praise than that.