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Book Review | Trilobites & Other Stories

Trailer parks, brutal rites of passage and low-paying jobs characterise this recently-unearthed short story collection by cult American author D'J Pancake.

25 August 2014, 7:54am
For the uninitiated, Breece D’J Pancake is one of those writers who must be read. Yet he still remains a cult figure. Mainly because the only collection of his short stories which remains in print can only be bought in the U.S. for a high price. Luckily, Vintage publishers have issued a new edition so that the writings of this fascinating author will reach a wider audience.

Breece Pancake was born in West Virginia in 1952 and from an early age, devoted his life to writing. He was a keen observer of working class society and tried to emulate the lifestyle of a hillbilly when he was in college. After attending creative writing courses and teaching English, he got some of his stories published in magazines (which led to his unusual middle initials). Despite some praise, he was deeply unsatisfied and by 1979 committed suicide.

The world depicted in Pancake’s ‘Trilobites and Other Stories’ is one of working-class Southerners. Trailer parks, brutal rites of passage and low-paying jobs. All the characters in these 12 short stories go through the trials of life, however instead of learning from their mistakes, they just accept their fate and go on through life bungling and making more messes.

Every short story collection has a highlight but with ‘Trilobites’, all the stories are strong. If I had to to single one out personally, it would be ‘Fox Hunters’, in which a ne’er-do-well is taken on a fox hunt by his car mechanic boss as way of curbing his delinquent acts, thinking that killing an animal will help the boy think in a mature fashion. Things don’t quite work out as they should and while the group watch their dogs chase a fox, the boy loses interest and doesn’t benefit from the exercise.

Breece Pancake’s stories do not have closure (bar a couple) as they are meant to be slices of life. However they are extremely well crafted. These stories are the result of constant observations with personal experience mixed in. Pancake’s eye for detail is precise so if you’re not associated with the technical jargon of car mechanics or hunting equipment, it’s best to keep a dictionary to hand. Strangely enough, Pancake barely ever uses slang or dialect in his writings.

These 12 stories are raw and portray a certain type of lifestyle; males are tough and macho, while women are either cheating on their husbands or finding ways to verbally harass them.

As we know that these are inexcusable attitudes, one must keep in mind that this is what Breece Pancake observed while growing up in this society. Unlike writers of a similar ilk – Hemmingway and Bukowski – there isn’t any physical violence and despite the machismo of the writing, there is always a soft underbelly, even certain tenderness to these vignettes.

Thankfully both the foreword and afterword give detailed explanations on Pancake’s worldview, which results in an inner conflict. Although Pancake was from a slightly different background, he wanted to associate with the West Virginian working class but at the same time preferred to hang around people who were the total opposite of the characters in his books.

‘Trilobites & Other Stories’ is a semi-frustrating read and this is not due to the writing style. It is because that one is reading 12 pieces written by an author who was just starting to build a following through his singular observations and this slim book is the only surviving testament to that. It would have been interesting to see how his style (and burgeoning fame) would evolve after a period of time.

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