About a boy Claudia Bonadonna | 25-11-2007 | ITA (Translated by Anamarķa Crowe Serrano) An impossible interview with Breece D'J. Pancake. A portrait of the American writer who could have been greater than Hemingway. Had he not died at 26, leaving behind just one book. Twelve unforgetable stories.
It's raining in the afterlife. I would have never thought it possible. "Oh yes, much more often than people think," says the blond boy in the baggy check shirt. "But it's beautiful rain, smallest drops you ever saw. You'd hardly notice it". There's a deep forest smell all around me. A dark green fragrance. We walk a while in silence, the boy and I, in single file. Rows of trees tower above us and the grass timidly slides under our feet.
"Is this your imaginary world?" I ask hesitantly.
"No. This is how you imagine me to be."
ABOUT A BOY
So, my dark woods are a conifer forest where a light drizzle falls. My Virgilian companion has a thick white beard, an evasive but gentle look, a comical golf cap, and his name is Breece Pancake.
"Can I call you D'J?" I ask, trying to break the ice.
"No," he makes sure it stays tightly packed.
Because of a typesetting error in the first edition of his stories, his middle name, Dexter, became D'J. Apparently Breece never corrected it. During that brief writing period from '76 to '79, he hunted, got involved in barroom brawls, started working as a university assistant, gave Atlantic Monthly the first of his twelve stories, and turned that typo into a minor literary alter ego. Maybe so as to keep others distanced from his secrets. It is said that he was troubled by the social difference between his upbringing and that of his middle-class colleagues. That he was torn in two, a man partly socialised, partly uncultured hillbilly. Like the hazy West Virginia he came from.
"Is that true, Breece?" He smiles politely, giving nothing away, and runs ahead with suspect confidence across the terrain he says I've imagined for him. I struggle on, trying to catch my breath, never letting him out of my sight. I've already understood his game: he wants me to fill in all the blanks. Pretend I've got it all wrong. Possibly plant new thoughts in my head. He's a tough nut to crack, Breece, even though he'll never admit as much. Won't easily open up. Lets you say whatever you like, even nods in agreement now and again. Ever so gently closing the door of sub-consciousness in your face.
Of course, the rules of the game don't necessarily mean he should be my guide. Not since that moonless, wordless night of April 7, 1979, when he decided to put a shotgun to his head and end his twenty six years of literary promise - he who shunned the theoretical comfort of art, saying all he needed was "his own experience". And yet, everything seems possible here. Here, in this idyllic and oppressive forest, heaven and hell seem inextricably intertwined.
"You're the one casting your own anguish on everything." Breece is suddenly beside me, following my train of thought. He insists that I've invented all this, but I'm not falling for it. This forest is redolent of antiquity. Steeped in memory and anger. There is fear living here. His fear. The cold light of dawn and the warm blood of the deer flayed by the hunter. The same we read about in his self-effacing, elegiac stories. In the austere elegance of his ballad-style rhythms. In the long, dense silences like the one along our path.
I tell him that I've come to know Appalachian America through him. The desolate, inhospitable landscape of West Virginia; poor from poverty that is no longer rural and not yet industrialised. A dark nucleus of quarries and forests.
I tell him I wasn't surprised to discover last January that there were miners still trapped down there in the bowels of the earth. "They died in their dozens," Breece tells me. In the newspapers and on TV there were images of family members in tears wearing worn sweatshirts and patched jeans. Truly poor people. The world seemed incredulous. Certainly, America was. "People quickly forget," he repeats with sad wisdom. "Those mining companies and their private armies, they forget coal and the foundries. They forget past tragedies."
He recounted the scraps that remain of this disastrous development and of the weakened, deprived, working-class people who survived him. Young boxers and old miners, unhappy vagrants and barmaids; veterans of war; fathers dead or drunk, sons moved on, nagging, sick or insane mothers. "Oh sure, I still visit them all."
I tell him that his people are fragments of a myth. That he's got the perfect stuff of legend here. Unassuming finds disinterred from decades of style and writing. So they've survived. They've been given back to time by the persistent work of archaeologists who admire and seek them out. "I left so as to get away from all this," he shrugs.
But I have the impression that I've unwittingly overstepped the mark. I think of his noisy suicide, so like Cobain's. I think of the contained rage that unites them, of the need to pursue some form of escape even at the cost of life itself.
For the first time, Breece is facing me, giving me a funny look: "Who, the blond guy from Seattle?" I'm dumbstruck, amazed that he might actually know him. "There's one thing that gets me about that guy. He'd take offence over nothing at all." Now he's blatantly having me on.
"You never said that!" I reply assertively.
"True, it was Burroughs. He was a good guy, Will. Didn't always have it together, but sometimes he'd get these brainwaves." He seems pleased at having perplexed me, so he continues. "I've nothing to do with the generational unease you guys have attributed to Nirvana." My head is buzzing with impossible coincidences. "I was looking beyond that, looking just for myself."
As he spoke, he was weaving together the disturbing, intense threads of a distant sadness, of an overwhelming life lived who knows when. I tell him that what I once read about him somewhere is true, that "not only did he learn things quickly, he aged them in a hurry".
"John Casey wrote that. I studied with him at the University of Virginia." Breece is always one step ahead. Literally.
There's another stretch of silence.
I watch him walk with his fists clenched in his pockets as if he's lost in some important thought. I imagine him with the hunting rifle, riding in his beat-up Volkswagen along some old dirt road high up the mountains. I imagine a stream that doesn't exist any more. I imagine the sad boy he was. The brilliant student, the slightly quirky writer, the trouble-maker in the pub, the thoughtful fisherman with the habit of giving fossils as gifts.
There's a strange sound coming from somewhere.
"Your pockets are ringing!" I suddenly realise.
"Eh?!" I've snapped him out of another of his thoughts.
"Your pockets," I point to them, "are ringing". I smile reticently, not wanting to bother him.
"Oh, that." He opens his hand and reveals a little pile of strangely petrified creatures.
"Shells?" I hazard a guess.