November 5th, 2010 / 2:00 pm
Literary Magazine Club

{LMC}: A reaction to the letter Breece D’J Pancake wrote but did not send to his mother before his 1979 suicide

If you would like to have the full PDF of NY Tyrant 8 so you can participate in this month’s LMC discussions, get in touch with me. But still, when you buy a literary magazine, an angel gets its wings.

This little nest of a letter, built up of hollow bones and shed feathers made me want to go read everything by Breece D’J Pancake, which is relatively easy to do since there’s just the one book; The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake (Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1983) Each tale therein unfolded with the same peripheral soul with a rainbow of great country names, walking in the woods, half-seducing a woman, finding their manhood an effective if clumsy tool for survival.

The stories, culled mostly from The Atlantic Monthly, are trance-inducing, dream-things. People and objects move by cresting, just clearing the ditches and hills in which they hide. In one, the way headlights came over the rise caught the man who was in turn being watched by a rabbit was like being caught in actual headlights yourself.

Given the powerful malaise that took me over after reading those stories, similar to that of Beckett, where the action is often built around what fails to happen, I was thankful for one little lighthearted incident in James Alan McPereson’s foreword to the collection, where Pancake came to visit him at the University of Virginia.

Breece made his way down the hall going  “I’m Jimmy Carter and I’m running for president,” over and over, mimicking the over-mimicked Southern statesman, wearing the thin joke to a nub. I’m not so sure why I’m so charmed by this, like I am of his evoking the “happy hunting grounds” in his letter. Maybe it’s a simultaneous embrace and critique of his bumpkin demeanor. The madman, the outsider, comes out of the cave chopping at the misshapen skulls to make them more human, the farce and compulsion to hone one’s alien nature into that of a normal human being.  Maybe it’s like the letter’s dream within the dream. How magic a soul do you have to be to have so many dreams that they have to be folded into each other? The kind that streaks though the sky like a comet, returning in a cycle until it eventually fizzles out, “passing through a place of bones that looked human but weren’t .”

The letter also appears on page 4 of A Room Forever: The Life, Work, and Letters of Breece D’J Pancake by Thomas E. Douglass, a scholarly portrait this missive led me to read. I was starting to fear NY Tyrant; was I going to spend the rest of the year digging up the background of everyone published in this issue? Is that not what lit journals are supposed to do?  I found myself completely breaking my own rule about separating the art from the artist. I wanted to put on flannel and grow lanky and “lay down with my Army blanket, [make] my bed in the snow, then [dream] within the dream” just so I could tap into that which coursed through this guy, so I could consult the angel this weird, earthy spirit became.

It’s a little creepy, our tendency to transform suicides into angels, but perhaps it’s as close as we get to the scrim of the divine. It is to the continuum-obsessed a short circuit to The Answers maybe, one that generates the kind of sparks we wish to create in our living hours. It’s a sham really. You either believe in the post-life housing reassignments of religion, as it appears Breece did with not a little humor – in John Casey’s afterword to the collection, he offers this anecdote:

A month later [after his suicide] a friend of his showed me a letter from Breece in which he’d written, “If I weren’t a good Catholic, I’d consider getting a divorce from life.”

Or you believe there is  nothing. A candle, whether snuffed out or burning out on its own, casts the same lack of light.  Maybe the real message we can cast upon Breece D’J Pancake’s life and writing is that math of existence is fuzzy. It doesn’t really add up nicely and like the reaction of his mother to the letter, we hope somehow that the artist/ourselves will in some sense bounce back from such an act up like the rabbit and do a little dance, or that in death, they/we will have the ability to visit the people with whom we sought to connect with in life through the animal spirits in the dreams within dreams.

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      Interestingly enough, I’m eating a fat stack of pancakes as I read this. But never mind that–can anyone make any good Netflix movie recommendations? I’m working through my queue faster than I realized and I need to build it up again. What are a few must-see, transformative or otherwise just plain good films to watch?

  2. James Claffey

      yeah, these stories are luminescent! magical writer. sad story too…

  3. Gian

      Beautiful, Alex.

  4. Sean

      I really enjoy the forward to his collection. I forgot who wrote it, a colleague, but it is rather strong.

  5. Matt Robison

      Agreed. No offense to Pancake lovers, but I liked the forward better than most of his stories, and I suspect it’s largely responsible for his recent popularity.

      Also agreed about how great this post is. Thanks, Alex.