You can’t copyright a title. That’s why we have so many books called The Chosen. I counted eight or more on the first three pages at Amazon. That’s why we have two movies called Bad Boys, two called Gladiator, three called Fatal Attraction. Titles are hard on me. I have several pages of them in my daybook. They’re all terrible.
So I borrow them. From writers famous and obscure. Literary borrowing. Gosh, that sounds so much better than outright thievery. The first title I stole was from a story by Breece D’J Pancake: “The Way It Has to Be.” I mean, borrowed. I saw the story in Rolling Stone, alongside that haunting picture from the back of the hardcover edition of his stories. This was the first I’d heard of Breece Pancake. His book had been published by Atlantic-Little, Brown only a couple of months before, February 1983. What was this wonderful story doing in Rolling Stone? Hunter Thompson, yes. But this little gem of compression and pain and broken dreams should have been in some literary magazine surely. I had a bookstore order me a copy of The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake, and I was never the same.
At the time, I was writing poetry in the master’s program at the University of Southern Mississippi. The Creative Writing Program was being run then by Frederick Barthelme, whose stories had been appearing in The New Yorker, along with work by Ann Beattie, Bobby Ann Mason, and Mary Robison, all tagged as minimalists. Of course, none of them embraced that term: it sounded dismissive, it didn’t represent what they felt they were doing. Critics jumped on them, using the term as a cudgel. I remember one article called “Throwing Dirt on the Grave of Minimalism.” Ouch.
I, on the other hand, really liked the minimalists. I was especially affected by Barthelme’s stories “Shopgirls” and “Moon Deluxe,” by Tobias Wolff’s “In the Garden of the North American Martyrs,” and by the ur-text of minimalism, Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Breece Pancake seemed to be working the same vein of neo-realism, what some were calling “K-Mart Realism” or “Dirty Realism.”
“Dirty” because the stories sometimes focused on poor or lower middle class characters, Carver’s drunken husbands, Ford’s misanthropic wanderers, Mason’s struggling West Virginians. The term “Dirty Realism” seemed to leave out several neo-realist writers like Beattie and Salter and Frederick Barthelme whose characters were often middle-class, college-educated, if nevertheless rootless. But the term did seem appropriate for Breece.
The characters in his stories are all economically marginal, small town West Virginians. They are caught between the past and the future. They want to move away, but can’t seem to break free. Their farms are being sold out from under them, and while they can imagine life elsewhere, they are stuck in ways they cannot fully fathom. There is a fatalistic determinism in Pancake’s writing, exemplified by the title “The Way It Has to Be,” the story of Alena, the story that first caught my attention. She has found a way out of West Virginia with her lover, Harvey, who has taken her to Texas in order to seek revenge for some unnamed wrong:
“She sat on a lip of step by the porcelain drinking fountain and watched Harvey’s head lolling against the car window, his holster straps arching slack above his shoulder. She felt her stomach twitch, and tried to rub her eyes without smearing. She didn’t want it this way, but knew Harvey would never change. She laughed a little; she had only come from West Virginia to see the cowboys, but all this range was farmed and fenced. The openness freed and frightened her.”
Harvey does, in fact, kill the man he was after, funneling the pair into a dead end that closes off the future for them. She tells him she will not go to Mexico with him, so he leaves and says he’s not coming back. She decides to stay in Texas and get a job, but he does come back, and she says again that she will not go with him:
“‘Nothin’s changed’ she said. ‘I’m stayin’ here.’
She nodded. ‘I got a job, so I called home. Everything’s okay.’
‘Can we talk upstairs?’
‘Sure,’ she said.
‘Then let’s talk,’ and his hand brushed against the revolver as he reached for another cigarette.”
And so the story ends. And surely it’s Alena’s end as well. There is no escape in a Breece Pancake story.
Last weekend I decided to read the Pancake book again. I’m not sure why. Maybe I’m stuck in the past too. I have three copies: the hardcover I’ve had since ’83, the paperback I taught out of for three semesters, and another paperback I had put on reserve in the library. I picked up the one I had taught out of, started the first story, “Trilobites,” and found myself wondering at my marginalia, some interesting and insightful, some illegible, some downright obtuse. I got caught up reading my comments and that interfered with my reading the story straight through. So I started over.
And I had recently read a fiction writer encouraging other fiction writers to read more poetry. She said that she had read some Donne sonnet every morning for a week. Read the same poem every morning for a week, and I thought that was a great idea, so I decided to read “Trilobites” every day this week. And I did. It’s a damn good story.
The narrator, Colly, is stuck. His mama is going to sell the farm. His girl, Ginny, left for Florida. His father fell dead in the yard some years before. The ghost of the ancient river Teays flows under the town, a constant reminder of the permanence and transience of all things:
“I lean back, try to forget these fields and flanking hills. A long time before me or these tools, the Teays flowed here. I can almost feel the cold waters and the tickling the trilobites make when they crawl. All the water from the old mountains flowed west. But the land lifted. I have only the bottoms and stone animals I collect. I blink and breathe. My father is a khaki cloud in the canebrakes, and Ginny is no more to me than the bitter smell in the blackberry briers up on the ridge.”
In the course of the story it becomes clear that Colly is still haunted by his father: the image of the dry, dead eyes Colly saw when he turned the body over recurs. His father seems to look over his shoulder as he admits his failure at farming: there is blight in the cane. “I’m just no good at it,” he tells himself. “It just don’t do to work your ass off at something you’re not no good at.” And so he doesn’t fight his mother over the sale of the farm. Though he does tell her he will not accompany her to Akron where she plans to live after the sale.
But neither can he see any way out. Ginny comes for a visit, but she tells him she has a man in Florida. When they make love for old time’s sake, he breaks down and asks her to take him with her when she returns. They are in an abandoned train depot (Wow. Good one, Breece). “Colly, please,” she says and leaves him there.
Alone at the depot, rotted and falling down around him, he sees a train coming. One might think, There’s a way out, but “my skin is heavy with her noise. Her light cuts a wide slice in the fog. No stiff in his right mind could try this one on the fly. She’s hell-bent for election.”
What will happen with Colly we’re not told. “I’ve got eyes to shut in Michigan—maybe even Germany or China, I don’t know yet.” These are places his father had mentioned. Colly still carries some great inexpressible debt to the man. Personally, I think he’s stuck. I think he’s staying right there. But I’ve been wrong before: the story ends with himsaying, “I feel my fear moving away in rings through time for a million years.” That’s hopeful.