Sheldon Lee Compton writes about the suicide of a phenomenal young writer, and what a visit to a simple gravesite in West Virginia meant to him as he dealt with issues of his own: the death of his father, his own mortality, and, ultimately, his hope for the future.
I’ve visited my father’s grave five times since his death in 2010. I’ve never spoken to him. Not once. It’s something I can’t bring myself to do. He’s not there. There’s only a tombstone, an empty plastic vase, and a guitar strap I wrapped around the tombstone the day of the burial. But there’s no father there. So I don’t talk.
Speaking to the dead was not on my radar for things to do that seemed rational, until this past summer.
In mid-June I visited Jay Hill, a friend of mine in Madison, West Virginia. Jay had asked that I come out and take part in a podcast interview with him. I was happy to visit and to have a good talk with Jay. But I’ll admit I did have other things on my mind.
When I agreed to the interview, I asked Jay how close he was to Milton. His response was perfect. He said, “I’m just about thirty minutes from Pancake’s grave.”
It was one of those beautiful moments when you realize someone else shares an exact obsession. He knew, right away, that I’d meant the hometown of Breece D’J Pancake and had answered accordingly. Not only that, but he followed up with an offer to drive me out to Milton after the interview to visit the gravesite of arguably the best writer of Appalachian literature this world has ever seen.
One of the first things I did was to invite my good friend Jarrid to go with me. Jarrid had introduced me to Pancake back in 2005. We worked at a newspaper and shared an office at the time. During one of our many time-wasting Internet binges he called over and said, “This dude is fucking interesting,” and sent me a link to Pancake’s Wikipedia page.
Writer. Suicide. Young. And the icing, he was Appalachian.
In Appalachia we don’t get many literary heroes. The ones who are counted as heroes are not mine, at least. Most Appalachian writers end up taking on the label of being a Southern writer, the far more prestigious, if completely untrue, option. They get their work lumped into that category pretty often and are generally happy as hell to leave it right there.
Not that any of us really go out of our way to attain a label. But there is a sense of sentiment and nostalgia connected to Appalachian writing that doesn’t entirely fit with my experiences. Once I started getting into Pancake’s I realized his fiction seemed to say the same about him.
His writing was work that was about Appalachia from a post-war on poverty perspective. It was contemporary and dealt with subjects that were more real to me. A lot of writers from Kentucky mark Pancake’s work as pivotal to them, including my friend and writer Chris Offutt, who has shared many talks with me about the impact of Pancake’s work on his own.
One of the first things I looked into was where Pancake was from – Milton, West Virginia. I went to Google Maps and found out exactly how far I’d be traveling. I started planning this trip then, in 2005. Somewhere, somehow, though, the trip fell to the wayside as life did what it does best and took over.
Then, this past summer, Jay called me about the interview. Jarrid wanted to make the trip, but was tied up. I felt guilty about going without him considering he had first introduced me to Pancake’s work, but, hell, I wasn’t about to stay home on principle. This was Mecca stuff.
Like I said, graves, cemeteries, they’re not for me. For me it’s not the reminder of death that keeps me away, it’s the strangeness of it.
You stand in the middle of a field or on some hillside somewhere and there’s this really, really deep silence that settles in. Awkward’s not the right word, but it’s close.
A cemetery is one of those places that starts up the big questions in my head. The only thing I can compare it to would be when they ask if you want to be an organ donor when renewing your driver’s license. It’s something I never think about, my organs and where they’ll go when I’m done here. But when they ask at the clerk’s office if I want to give mine away, it becomes a weighty topic. All at once, this thing I never think about becomes a huge issue. Cemeteries are like that for me.
I thought about this on my way across the state line into West Virginia, about the trip later from Madison to Milton. I wasn’t worried about standing over Pancake’s grave and feeling that strangeness, but I wasn’t exactly at ease about it either.
Before my heart attack this past June, I never thought about death. Now, with my ticker blitzing in and out at least once a week, I do think about dying, but usually I push it aside as soon as it comes up. Heading into Milton after my interview with Jay, my mortality was on my mind front and center. And it pissed me off.
This was supposed to be about visiting the grave of one of my favorite writers and all I could think about was my goddamn heart.
On April 8th, 1979, Breece Pancake walked into his backyard in Charlottesville, Virginia, sat beneath an apple tree, put the barrel of a shotgun in his mouth and pulled the trigger.
He was 26 years old.
The aftermath was a strange one. His teachers and his mother, Helen, worked tirelessly over the next four years compiling his body of work, which consisted of neatly trimmed short stories, into a collection which was eventually published in 1983.
The morbid stigma surrounding the publication was the subject of much discussion. This young man had killed himself on the verge of an astounding literary career. Critics were quick to give any praise offered on the finished collection a skeptical eye. Again and again they made references to the posthumous publication of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces as a catalyst for holding tortured artists in too high regard based solely on their early deaths.
But Pancake’s work withstood the speculation, even if the reasons for his suicide did not, as I would soon see first-hand.
When we arrived in Milton, we went to the library where Helen Pancake worked for many years. She had curated a section for her son, complete with first editions of his collection, magazines in which he had been published before his death, as well as several pictures. Inside the case was also a stack of large cards, original directions to his grave for those who were interested.
I walked in and was met by Lynn McGinnis, one of the librarians. She was tall and had a nice smile. Her smile eased my nervousness, and I told her why I was there. She at once started sharing stories about Pancake.
She knew him all through school in Milton and later at Marshall University. He had, in fact, flirted with her some in class from time to time. But the main thing she wanted me to know was that nobody in Milton, especially herself, believed anybody really knew what happened to Pancake that day in April, 1979.
“He was just Breece,” she said. “Nothing special. I mean he was unusual. He was definitely a character, but I don’t think any of us thought of him as a budding Hemingway, or anything like that. I was shocked when I found out about his death. I was shocked and I still am shocked to this day. I think there has to be some explanation for what happened.”
I thanked her for talking with me and continued on to see Pancake’s section in the special collections room, one word ringing soundly through my head.
As we turned into the cemetery where Pancake was laid to rest, Jay turned to me and said, “Just over there is a shop that sells dildos, man. Less than forty feet from the grave of the best writer who ever lived. It’s a fucking shame.”
And it is, there’s no doubt. When I got out of the truck and started looking for the flat grave marker I had read about in articles, I could see the shop Jay mentioned just over a little hill at the edge of the cemetery. People were in there at that moment buying dildos and porn. It was a disgrace. I wanted to shout something about injustice. About travesty and disrespect. But instead I just kept looking, and thought of what Joyce Carol Oates said of Pancake in 1983.
In her New York Times review of his posthumous collection of stories, Oates said she had been tempted to compare Pancake to Hemingway. Others had also spoken of Pancake with high praise. Kurt Vonnegut wrote to Pancake’s former teacher John Casey in 2002 saying, “I give you my word of honor that he is simply 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.”
I don’t know why this was going on in my head while searching out his simple grave marker, but it was. It was the mythology at play, I think. And then, before I could get further lost inside my own fan-boy mind, there was his name across a rectangular marker four feet from me. Breece D’J Pancake. His name and the birth and death dates. That was all.
It was perfect, just like the best of Pancake’s stories. Clean and functional. Writing in the Mississippi Review, author Cynthia Kadohata offered her haunting impression of standing at Pancake’s grave and why she had come there to begin with, saying, “I don’t think in any case that my goal was quite to know or understand him. Because I admired his writing so much, what I’ve wanted all along is simply to know not why but when it was that he passed from anguish to despair, as if by finding exactly the moment I could cause some sort of magical chain reaction, and he would not have died the way he did.”
Here’s my take on it. Pancake would not want consideration for his life, not from a fellow writer, anyway. Every word he wrote was a study in craft and sheer work and effort. His own life was secondary, at the very least a loosely spun inspiration or guidebook for his beloved characters.
Pancake would probably be more satisfied with consideration for the plainness of his grave, the cemetery stretching beyond it, the woods and the creatures – the fox, the deer – huddled there, watching, waiting, alert for something to keep them safe until tomorrow.
I thought of this and forgot about words like shocked and phrases like some explanation for what happened. What I noticed, though, was that the strange silence and weight wasn’t working on me like it usually did where the dead lay.
As we were about to leave, I asked Jay for a minute. He nodded knowingly and started to his truck, leaving me standing over Pancake’s grave.
I stared at the grave for a long time. I remembered the guitar strap on my dad’s tombstone, how I almost spoke to him when I left it there four years ago. How I wish I could have.
I bent to clear away some stray blades of grass growing over the corners of the marker. Close there, with the leftover heat of the afternoon lifting up from the ground, I took a last look around and leaned in closer.
“Thanks, Breece,” I said. “Thanks for all of it.”
Sandy Barnett Ebner, Creative Non-Fiction Editor: Interview with Sheldon Lee Compton
Sandy Barnett Ebner: One of the great things about nonfiction is that it can teach us about places and ideas we might never have discovered on our own. I can’t imagine anyone reading, “Thanks, Breece,” and not wanting to read all of Pancake’s stories. Considering his influence on your own work, what would that mean to you?
Sheldon Lee Compton: It would be very satisfying if everyone reading it would then read his work. For now, I’m just greatly satisfied that you’ll be checking him out. One fan at a time is a good way to go about it. I know not everyone who reads Pancake will have the same deep respect as I do, I suppose. But even if you’re from South America and read his work about Appalachia, the prose, the structure, the tone and style, is there. He was a master storyteller and one of the hardest working writers you could possibly read. All that comes across in his writing, and I think readers would pick up on that and, at the very least, respect this aspect of his work.
You write about how your visit to Pancake’s grave forced you to reevaluate not only your father’s death but your own mortality as well. Can you elaborate on that?
I think the visit to his gravesite started as a trip by a fan and became what trips to gravesites can often become – a time of re-evaluating. The guilt I had after visiting and actually speaking to Pancake while not having done so at my father’s grave was something that stuck with me, you know? I still haven’t visited my father’s grave and spoken to him since that trip, and I only live about twenty minutes from where he’s buried. I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to feel comfortable enough to do that. In a lot of ways, Pancake was a friend and I guess my father was just this guy who mostly didn’t really want to be my father and certainly didn’t want to have me as a son. That probably has more to do with it than anything, truth be told.
I’m interested in the connection between Pancake and John Kennedy Toole that was made at the time of Pancake’s death. Both writers’ works reflect a deep sense of place, New Orleans in Toole’s case, and Appalachia in Pancake’s. How does sense of place influence your writing?
Place influences my writing, for sure, but I try not to get too caught up in that idea. Instead, I allow Kentucky – the hollers and coal camps, etc. – to come up naturally. The culture is as much a part of place for me as anything else. The people. When I’m working with realism, regional writing and the like, I’m not thinking about how I’m going to work in place, you know? I just write about the people and events and so forth that make up where I’m from. I’ve found out if I make too conscious an effort to make my writing Appalachian or whatever, it busts it all to hell. I might as well be writing a travel brochure for the local tourism department. But the influence is there, even with my other work that doesn’t explicitly deal with my area. It’s not something I ever try to move away from, regardless what I’m writing. I let it happen naturally, and I’ve learned the hard way that this is best approach.
In your essay you talk about how writers are often stuck with a label (Southern writers, Women writers, etc.), whether they’d like to be or not. Do you see this as always being a bad thing or do you think that, in some cases, it can actually help bring attention to a writer’s work.
I have no doubt a label will most always bring attention to a writer’s work. Whether or not that attention ends up as something worthwhile is probably another matter altogether. Some writers embrace labels, others actively shun them. I feel that both acts are one and the same in terms of passion and purpose. The writer who is truly invested in only the work will care less what they’re called. They’ll care more for the work.
Which writers, besides Pancake of course, have influenced your work, and who are some of your favorite writers working today?
My early influence was Stephen King. Because of his influence I still hold to the idea that what’s most important is entertaining readers. Later on, when I was exposed to more writers, I picked up Michael Ondaatje and began to gain interest in style and bravery in vision. Writers working today who I most admire? There are a lot of them, but I’ll try to keep the list under control. Wendy C. Ortiz, Peter Schwartz, Jamie Iredell, Steph Post, Scott McClanahan, Donald Ray Pollock, Kelly Link, Rusty Barnes, George Saunders. I could keep going, but that covers some bases, I think. I like writers who are pushing themselves and their writing, going somewhere that might not be viewed as entirely acceptable, but are willing to go to those places were story and heart are found.
What does your writing process look like? Do you write every day?
I do write every day. Not always very well or very much, but I write. These days I’m usually getting into my office where I teach at about 5:30 a.m. My first class doesn’t start until 8:00 a.m. So I spend that time writing. But not exclusively, if I’m being honest. What I’ll do is get at my computer and pull up a documentary website I enjoy. I’ll find a good one and get it started. I award myself with about five minutes of this and then I pause it and write for about fifteen or twenty minutes. Then I go back and watch another five minutes of the documentary. It’s helpful in some odd way. I don’t push the work too hard that way, force myself to keep going when my mind is saying take a break. I’ll get my break, you know, in about twenty minutes, so let’s write until then. I have stopped writing at home, and that’s been difficult, but I have that time in the morning, so it’s working out okay. If I hadn’t stopped writing at home, I would probably be single by this point. A person can only take so much of a backseat to some dude sitting at a keyboard making up stories every waking hour. I understand that.
You write mostly fiction, I know, both flash and short stories. What are you working on now, and do you plan on writing more essays?
I have been writing more essays. I don’t know why, really. Lately I’ve picked up on bits of conversation here and there that are forming ideas for me that fit best in essay form, I guess. I have an essay due to be included in an anthology out from Ohio University Press this coming spring. Also, I’m thinking of starting one in the next week or so about the trend here in Kentucky of parents training their children how to get on welfare. This happens. It’s a real thing here.
I’m working on a novel called Alice. I started it in September and plan to have my first draft finished by the end of December. I didn’t think that goal would be something I could manage at first, but the writing is coming more easily with this novel than with my previous books. I can’t tell if that’s a good or bad sign, but I’m kind of enjoying the ride.
Sheldon Lee Compton is the author of the story collections The Same Terrible Storm and Where Alligators Sleep. His novella, Brown Bottle, is due out in 2015 from Artistically Declined Press. He survives in Kentucky.