Breece D’J Pancake was born in 1952, and died Palm Sunday, 1979, at the age twenty-six, by self-inflicted shotgun wound. It was with the last gun he owned, after he gave the rest away to his friends who did not hunt, for sport or survival.
Breece’s pen name comes from an error in the first story he had published in The Atlantic Monthly, where he intended to go by Breece D.J. Pancake — the D for Dexter, his given middle name, and the J for John, for when he converted to Catholicism in his mid-twenties. He elected not to correct the error.
He was a Milton, West Virginian, of German descent, who taught himself his ancestors’ language during his brief stint in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with his sister. I don’t intend cuteness when I say it makes sense that this West Virginian of German roots is known by a name that sounds all too urban, all too French. Breece D’J, Crepé.
It makes sense for a kid that drifted, was rarely understood, and rarely came home. His favorite song was “Jim Dean from Indiana,” about an orphan who left the midwest for coastal California.
Jim left, he said, to become an actor; he played “a boy without a home, torn with no tomorrow/ reaching out to touch someone, a stranger in the shadows.”
All too many academics and academic eavesdroppers have poured over Breece’s work for clues to his morals, his tenor and attitude, his secrecy, and ultimately, his suicide. Like most, Breece’s suicide was abrupt. It came in a time when news ran through the telegram. It took far longer for those left to find out than it took him to do the deed.
One critic wrote that “(Breece’s) canvas is littered with old broken-down autos, the detritus of an industrial age — all symbols of blight and sterility.” Another called him “the greatest writer you’ve never heard of.” Joyce Carol Oates wrote in the NYT Book Review that “one is tempted to compare his debut to Hemingway’s.”
Some have laid speculation for Breece’s suicide on the stoop of his father’s alcoholism, the gruesome death of a near friend, or other likely suspects in an unsolvable mystery. Others have indicated Breece’s habit near the end of giving away cherished possessions was an all-too-obvious harbinger. Still others speculate it was the result of a single night gone horribly awry, not at all the fated conclusion of a life and a mind broken from the get.
After Breece’s death, the author Kurt Vonnegut wrote in a letter to one of his teachers at UVA in Charlottesville. He said, “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 was birthed over two decades after Breece’s departure, never looked him in the eyes or picked his brain for clues — but I suspect the compliment, from Vonnegut or any old obscure academic, or his own mother or sister, would have made him ill at ease. Maybe it would have made him blush, or turn away, or run for the wooded hollows.
The writer James Alan McPherson, who mentored Breece at UVA, where Breece again felt misplaced, dislocated, and in over his head, did not offer conclusion on the writer’s suicide. He described the story he received over telegram Palm Sunday morning, after not speaking to Breece for months — McPherson himself off in Brooklyn, trying to shake his own past that wouldn’t let him be. All of his quotes following come from his foreword to “The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake,” a collection published posthumously..
He was told that Breece had been drinking, heavily. Breece went into the home of a family near his house on the outskirts of Charlottesville, and waited for them to return. His presence frightened the family, who thought him a burglar. Maybe Breece instead thought himself an invading opposum, and scurried back to his den. Sometime in the night, for some reason, the drunken Breece put his Savage over-under shotgun in his mouth and called it quits.
“I speculate that Breece had his own reasons for hiding in a neighbor’s house. They may have had to do with personal problems, or they may have had to do with emotional needs,” McPherson wrote. “I believe that Breece had had a few drinks and found himself locked inside that secret room he carried around with him.”
Earlier in the foreword, McPherson talked of Breece’s frequent gift-giving, and of a particular night two years earlier, shrouded in mystery. The former writer phoned the latter’s home several times to catch a movie, without answer. Eventually, McPherson received an answer, but it was a strange man, with a strange and deep voice. The voice told McPherson he did not know a Breece, that whoever he was looking for no longer lived there. After some muffled chatter, including Breece’s, the voice came back on the line, took McPherson’s name and number, and hung up.
A long time after, Breece mentioned the incident.
“He made me promise I would never tell anyone about the night I called him the summer before,” McPherson wrote. Breece said nothing else of it. McPherson never pressed.
He continued about the night of the young writer’s suicide:
“I believe he had scattered so many gifts around Charlottesville, had given signals to so many people, that he felt it would have been all right to ask someone to help him during what must have been a very hard night. I believe he was so inarticulate about his own feelings, so frightened that he would have been rejected, that he panicked when the couple came home… How does one say he expects things from people after having cultivated the persona of the Provider? How does one explain the contents of a secret room to people who, though physically close, still remain strangers? How does one reconcile a lifetime of giving with the need for a gesture as simple as a kind word, an instant of basic human understanding?”
Breece’s narratives, to me, are shawled in secrets. His characters are unsheathed only between the paragraphs, only implicitly. He wrote just as he died, and I don’t know if he liked that. I guess it doesn’t matter.
His scrawl described directly, by a slow rhythm, without a wasted word — “the chink of spades and scrape of shovels slipped into their muscles,” he wrote of some West Virginian coal miners — but his character’s intentions are as unclear to us as they are to the subjects themselves.
In “A Room Forever,” Breece described the New Year’s Eve encounter of a sailor on shore leave and a teen-aged prostitute who looked at him like “the Wrath of God.” The sailor eyed her, she eyed him, and he swiftly dipped past a jaundiced drunkard with a “cauterized brain.” He mulled the prostitute on his walk back to the hostel. She followed him to his room, and the two talked about aspirations a while.
However, “nobody here gets a break,” the sailor told us.
“I could tell her about my fosters or the ladies in the welfare offices, and the way they looked at me when they put me on a bus for another town, but it wouldn’t make any sense to her.” Instead, “I turn off the light and we undress, get into bed.”
He forced himself on her “like the rest,” then tried for small talk after, like the rest.
“Why don’t you just shut-the-fuck-up,” she said, and left. ‘Round midnight, the sailor found a hole in the wall and stopped for a drink. Through the glass behind the liquor shelf, he spotted the teen-aged girl — in a booth, alone, dead-drunk.
“I don’t guess she knows she can’t drink her way out of this,” the sailor told us. “I know (the people of this river town) can’t run away from it or drink their way out of it or die to get rid of it.”
The girl went and sat in the alley in her own vomit. She slit each wrist and bled all over. The sailor claimed to the other patrons he’d never seen her in his life, retired to the hostel, and slept.
“Fox Hunters” is riddled with lies told without clear intent.
It’s about a boy named Bo, with nothing left of his late father but the revolver the old man left behind. Bo would tell Lucy, the owner of a local boardinghouse, of his dreams of ditching for New York, getting his degree, making something of himself. “He had felt silly and ashamed when Lucy said to finish high school first,” Breece told us.
Bo and Lucy, far his senior in age and experience, shared secrets. Everyone in town referred to her as “the whore.” Over coffee each morning, while his drunkard boss Enoch preyed on women a third his age and showed to work late, Bo played a game with Lucy. Not a single visitor tipped her, except him. He would subtly slip a quarter under his coaster each time he left. He didn’t think she was the whore everyone made her out to be, but she swore him to never let his opinion spread.
This particular morning, Bo and Lucy had cryptic conversation over breakfast.
“Lucy remembered growing up,” Breece told us, as she calmed his anxiety over a girl named Dawn.
“I guess it’s just I don’t say nothin’ worth listenin’ to,” Bo tells her.
“Bo, listenin’s worth more to the listener,” she replied. Bo “would remember to look for meaning later.” He slipped a quarter under the coaster, and departed.
Late in the morning, Bo met his boss, who told him Dawn had died in a car accident overnight. The drunkard Enoch had been secretly preying on his classmate, Bo knew; he also hated the old creep for referring to him as only a “boy.” So he threatened to quit.
“I got enough on you to earn my keep without workin’,” Bo told Enoch. Evidently at the fear of being outed for whatever sin he’d committed, or to rid himself a damning witness, Enoch cozied up, offered him and his friends to take Bo fox hunting.
“I figger yer daddy woulda took ya by now,” he said. Bo, nervously excited, ran home and grabbed his dad’s revolver. He waited for Enoch at the boardinghouse.
“Can’t shoot foxie, Bo,” Lucy told him. “Be nothin’ left to chase.” Bo, eager to prove himself the Man, shooed off her words. This time, he didn’t remember to leave the quarter.
(The interplay between predator, prey, and protector.)
On the way to the hunt, Enoch tried to relay Bo some wisdom. He told of the time, when he was only eight, his dad had taken him to a whorehouse to make him a Man. Upon coercion, the prostitute performed fellatio on the young Enoch. The old Enoch told the story proudly. Bo replied with his own sexual fantasy of Dawn (concealing her identity, of course), and told it as if it really happened. They laughed, then met Enoch’s friends and their bluetick hounds. The men set their hounds free to hunt the fox while they built a fire and took nips of whiskey. They traded stories of ripe fucking and talked shit about hippies.
“Hippie just screws animals,” Cuffy said.
“Or other hippies,” Enoch added.
“That’s what he means,” Bo explained, “and they all broke into a wild wind of laughter.” The night was about learning to be a Man. Bo was set to prove himself a Man.
Late into the night, Bo was drunker than piss. He laid and half-listened to the others tell stories of what they had done, or would have done, to Dawn.
“I’m horny again,” Cuffy said.
“Hell, we all are,” said Virg. “Let’s dig her up.”
“The men had whittled the time away telling lies mingled with truth until Bo could no longer distinguish between the two,” Breece remarked. “(Bo) had told things, too; no truth or lie could go untold. It was fixed now; the truth and lies were all told.”
Amid the yarning, Bo saw through his one good eye the hounds closing in on the fox. He took out his dad’s revolver and shot it into the wooded dark, scaring the hounds off. The prey ran for safety. Of course, Enoch’s friends chastised him for his boyish cowardice.
“Leave ‘im alone,” Enoch told them. “Nobody never teached ‘im no better.”
Bo stood up, wavering, and replied.
“I’s sorry, but I’s just tryin’ to save foxie.”
I think about Breece, the estranged West Virginian crowded by academics, a backwoods hunter and fisher right up to his death — trapped, like Bo, with the desire to be a Man, and a confusion as to what that word even entails. Stuck without a clear notion of himself, stuck without a clear notion of what ‘himself’ even meant.
I don’t know, no one knows, why Breece the converted Catholic scurried back home that Palm Sunday, put a shotgun in his mouth, and committed a mortal sin. I can only speculate like the rest, and it makes me restless.
McPherson, himself now dead, offered some words on the matter. He related Breece to the singer of “Jim Dean of Indiana,” Breece’s favorite folk poet, Phil Ochs.
“What if the need (for basic human understanding) is so bathed in bitterness and disappointment that the attempt itself, at a very critical time, seems hopeless except through the written word? In such a situation, a man might look at his typewriter, and then the rest of the world, and just give up the struggle. Phil Ochs hanged himself. Breece Pancake shot himself. The rest of us, if we are lucky enough to be incapable of imagining such extreme acts of defiance, manage to endure,” McPherson wrote.
I then go back to Vonnegut, also suicidal, also dead, and in his time certainly a well-read man: “the most sincere writer I’ve ever read.”
McPherson, who was Black and raised in the Jim Crow South, met Breece in the fall of 1976, “a year of extraordinary hope in American politics,” with the pending election of a folksy Georgian named James Earl Carter.
“People in all parts of the country, black and white, were looking to that region with a certain optimism. Carter had inspired in a great many people that this New South was the long-promised one,” McPherson wrote. Two days they met, McPherson recalled an encounter with an “overrefined and affected young man from Texas,” who greeted him with “the Old South tradition of noblesse oblige.”
“Oh, no, no, no, no! You don’t have to get up,” the white Texan boy told the established professor.
His encounter with Breece was quite the opposite. The young West Virginian approached McPherson’s office from the hall, and mocked in a lower-class southern voice “that instantly calls to mind the word cracker… in the genteel buzz and hum of Wilson Hall, (it) suggested either extreme arrogance or a certain insecurity.”
“I’m Jimmy Carter and I’m running for President, I’m Jimmy Carter and I’m running for President,” Breece repeated.
He then stood in the doorway of McPherson’s office. He said, “Buddy, I want to work with you,” and the two struck up an all-too-brief friendship.
I think Breece, if nothing else, despised insincerity. I think, without a buried hint of irony, he was a person who couldn’t look away from the truth, about himself, about his next-door neighbors, about sexuality, about humans and critters alike. In the end, he couldn’t live with it either.
“(Breece’s) ambition was not primarily literary: he was struggling to define for himself an entire way of life, an all-embracing code of values that would allow him to live outside his home valley in Milton, West Virginia,” McPherson concluded.
Every day I wake, I struggle toward and against that. In writing, sure, but in life itself: the slightest glint of that unvarnished honesty.
Richard Morris is a writer of very small acclaim. He graduated from history pre-law in Athens, Ohio, in 2020, got his shoe stuck in the sewer grate off West Washington, and never left. He’s not quite a man, overgrown to be a boy, but a guy of varied vices, who writes professionally for the Logan Daily News in nearby Logan, Ohio. In his spare time, Mr. Morris drinks excessively and has winding chats with strangers, which he technically counts as work. Writing, after all, is just talking. Other than that, he reads too little, cries too much, loves Detroit Lions football, and is probably on another re-watch of Twin Peaks. He’s his grandma’s favorite boy, his dad’s third ex-wife’s favorite ex-stepson, and his dear (if quite new) friend Chelsea Langlois once called him “one of, if not the, best writer I’ve ever met in person.”
Mr. Morris’ primarily-fiction blog (content warning for the gamut of triggers) can be found at thoughts prayers.substack.com. His priv instagram, where he sad-posts and shit-posts and goes on unhinged manic rants, can be found at chuck.chuckgoose. Don’t ask: no, he doesn’t go by Chuck.