Library of America's publication of Pancake's classic stories, letters and unfinished works officially enshrines him into the American literary canon, more than 40 years after he tragically died at 26.
Pancake possessed a hard-earned authority on various facets of West Virginia life, including 'doghole mining, long-distance trucking, Holiness congregations, serpent handling,' to which you could add boxing competitions, tugboat operating, fox hunting and farming. The depictions are unsentimental and often brutal, sharpened by regret and a desperate longing for escape. But the harshness is conveyed with a level of intensity and clairvoyance that we associate with adoration—and indeed, conflicted love is at the heart of each of these stories ... Pancake was an extraordinarily tactile writer. The naked emotions he summons are tangible in the rhythms of his sentences, the heavy, vibratory cadences that you can feel beneath your skin ... While Pancake could be humorous—the apostrophe between the middle initials of his name was a wry joke, adopted from a printer’s error at the Atlantic—these are in general earnest, serious stories, preoccupied with purity and evil. They are a young man’s stories, in other words, and it is impossible not to feel the loss of the work he would have created as he both mellowed and grew more confident ... these stories survive him, heartbreaking not for their potential but their perfection.
Hollow,' 'The Honored Dead,' and 'In the Dry' all rank easily among Pancake’s strongest work. They’re brilliant by any standard ... But then you’ve got stories like 'Fox Hunters' and 'A Room Forever,' which are powerfully conceived but clumsily executed, while a few others are, to put it plainly, not very good ... a new introduction by Jayne Anne Phillips...gamely recounts the missed connections ... This trivia is charming in its way, but I’d have been more charmed by it if she hadn’t gotten the date of his death wrong by two months, or led with the fatuous assertion that 'Breece Pancake’s stories comprise no less than an American Dubliners' ... Pancake’s stories offer a rare glimpse of genius in late gestation, fighting to be born. The rough edges, loose ends, false steps, and psychic self-exposure are all part of that difficult birth, and it hardly diminishes the writer or the work to say so. One does the stories no favors by holding them to a standard of individual excellence and collective effect that they cannot possibly meet ... I wish that more care had been put into this book ... no editor is credited on the volume, which likely explains why it also lacks a chronology, bibliography, or biographical essay. The absence of a guiding curatorial intelligence is palpable and much lamented.
In this vibrant collection, Pancake’s quirky, indelible prose is shadowed by the poignancy of his personal history ... the stories live up to the hype. Pancake balances muscular precision and economy with rich, evocative detail ... In addition to the stories and five fragments, the book includes a lengthy section of Pancake’s letters, which reads like a memoir. With its impressive quantity of annotation and tribute, this omnibus offers Pancake fans a deeper look at the artist and will go a long way to inviting others to join this legion.