Perhaps you’ve heard the tragic story of John Kennedy Toole, the author of A Confederacy of Dunces . Toole’s novels remained unpublished during his lifetime, but after he snuffed out his own life at the young age of 31 his mother sent away his manuscripts to publishers. He eventually posthumously received a Pulitzer Prize in 1981. His first novel, The Neon Bible, although published after his death, was written while he was a high school student and subsequently made into a movie in 1995. The ultimate tragic irony is that publishers’ rejections certainly led to his ailing health and failing mental state.
But perhaps you are unaware of the similar heartrending story of author Breece D’J Pancake. Pancake also prematurely ended his own life. He was 26 years old. His death garnered attention from such luminaries as Andre Dubus III and Kurt Vonnegut who wrote ‘ 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.’
Unlike the novelistic vision of Toole, Pancake’s strengths lie within his compact and plaintively crafted short stories. The setting is almost always in the West Virginia hills. The characters are rural working class, sooty-faced miners, farmers of fallow fields, alcoholics and prostitutes. The short story form suited Pancakes Hemingway-esque, vibrant style. While novels rely on a climax for effectiveness, Pancake was able to craft short stories whose characters did not require revelation through plot development. They were stunted in the present, sometimes searching for clarity and truth in the past, but usually too impotent to sustain growth.
Pancake’s best, most heartbreakingly beautiful short stories can be found in The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake . Read “Trilobites” and familiarize yourself with one the great all time American short story writers.