Like John Kennedy Toole’s Confederacy of Dunces, Trilobites & Other Stories is a book you can’t approach without hearing back story and context. There are little stories, to be sure, anecdotes of the kind that grace both the foreword and the afterword of this particular edition of Breece D’J Pancakes’ only collection (such as the story of the misprinted apostrophe between the D and the J, gifted him by the Atlantic Monthly, a gift he liked so much he changed his name, on his fiction at least).And there is the big story, too: that, at the age of 26, which we know is no age at all, Pancake blew his brains out, Brautigan-style, with a shotgun. Not that any of this is news. This book was first published (under a slightly blander ‘Collected Stories of’ rubric) some thirty years ago. Vonnegut was a fan. He called Pancake ‘the best, most sincere writer I’ve ever read.’ Margaret Atwood rates him, too, for his ‘exceptional voice’: ‘gritty, mordant, invested with the texture of stroked reality; urgent and haunting.’ Atwood’s words are useful when you approach the book. But before we approach the book, there is one more thing to say: it’s being touted as another Stoner, another lost classic, another book that should sell cartloads all over Europe to the bemusement of the USA. Whilst it is, in some senses, a lost classic, in that it’s a good book that probably doesn’t have the readership it deserves, it doesn’t really have much else in common with Stoner (if anything, it has more in common with another novel by John Williams, Butcher’s Crossing). Part of this is due to the fact that Trilobites is, as the title suggests, a collection of short stories and we know, don’t we, that short stories don’t sell as well as novels do. Trilobites is also harder, though, less welcoming than Stoner; Pancake, we sense, was not a writer who particularly wanted (or perhaps knew how to attract is a better way of putting it) a populist readership. It’s primarily being connected with Stoner to see if the success of Stoner can be repeated – and if we’re judging it in those terms, we here at Bookmunch towers think Vintage may well be disappointed by the outcome. Pancake is a writer who fervent readers of a particular kind of Americana will flock to. How many of those fervent readers there are is up for debate.
But let’s talk first about what there is to like about Trilobites. Pancake is a good, strong nature writer. Fans of a writer like David Vann might want to take a lookee here. His writing vividly brings to life the West Virginian communities in which he was raised. You read a story like ‘Fox Hunters’, for instance, in which a character called Bo struggles with his situation in life and often comes to blows with his work colleagues in one way or another. This is a world in which man and animal are used to counterpoint one another – much as, say, Terence Malick uses the brutality and beauty of the natural world as a backdrop for his war stories in The Thin Red Line. This is a world in which Bo can stand, trying to avoid a lift from his boss, at the side of the road, where he is confronted by an opossum and her babies – and each stares, ‘neither wanting any part of the other’. Later a fox and an owl do battle over a rabbit, as Bo himself drunkenly upsets the people around him.
Pancake is also strong on characterisation. Like, say, Flannery O’Connor, he can conjure a person’s entire life in a handful of words. Here he is in ‘The Scrapper’, for instance:
‘Bund would be sitting on a Coke case in front of the Gulf station begging change, his tongue hanging limp.’
In the afterword to the book, Pancake’s friend and contemporary John Casey writes:
‘One of the virtues of his writing is the powerful, careful gearing of the physical to the felt.’
You can see this throughout the book but a good example can be found in ‘The Mark’, a story of possible incest and discontent, in which the central character Reva is sitting mulling on her life:
‘A small dusty breeze moved across the porch, and Reva shivered in its heat, closing her eyes to tears from staring too long. A tiny pain screwed into her back, and she tried to hate against being left here, alone. She tried to blame Clinton, her parents, even the river, but opened her eyes to the white knuckles of her tiny fist.’
Some of the stories are a little unyielding, like the tiny fist described above, in the sense that they don’t immediately reveal their intent – but this is not necessarily a bad thing. Pancake’s readers cannot read and absorb and move on; Pancake’s readers may have to stop, to consider, to re-evaluate, to step back, to re-read, to think. Thankfully, the success of a writer like Eimear McBride suggests there may be more readers willing to think than publishers sometimes credit. Which isn’t to say that Pancake is like McBride. Joyce is to McBride what someone like Faulkner is to Pancake. He’s a very American writer, rooted in the soil and the complexity of life. Saying this, though, he has more in common with writers like Daniel Woodrell or Denis Johnson that he does with, say, Cormac McCarthy. Pancake eschews the linguistic virtuosity of someone like McCarthy. His words, whilst sometimes curious, unfamiliar, of their world and time, rarely send you scurrying to a dictionary. What is also interesting is the way in which the shorter and more immediate stories – such as ‘Time and Again’ (which seems to involve a man flirting with the idea of killing – ‘People die so easy’) or ‘First Day of Winter’ (a sombre edit of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ with the wonderful parts all gone) – change as you read the longer more complex stories, such as ‘In the Dry’ (in which Pancake does in about 18 pages what Osage Orange County took hours over) or ‘The Honored Dead’. He covers so much ground in the longer stories, you think I must be missing stuff in the shorter stories. And of course you are.
So. Trilobites might not be a Stoner in terms of possible popular acceptance but it is the kind of book that word of mouth will help. I heard about it via a friend’s recommendation. You’re hearing about it here. The baton gets passed. Eventually, there may well be enough of us to form a fan club. Here’s hoping.
Any Cop?: An acquired taste, in some senses, and not for everyone, quite possibly. If you like Daniel Woodrell, though, or Donald Ray Pollock, you’ll get a big kick out of Breece D’J Pancake.