This year’s Stoner? Introducing Breece D’J Pancake

The publisher who brought John Williams’s Stoner to Random House believes he has found its successor: a “hillbilly” from the US coal belt with a precious talent.

Mine craft.
Mine craft: Breece D'J Pancake's stories explore lives defined by their geology. Photograph: Dmitri Kessel/Time & Life Pictures/Getty.

When I first heard about John Williams’s Stoner, like everyone else I assumed it was a book about drugs. I was wrong. It turned out to be a sad American novel, first published in 1965, about a university English teacher who enters into a miserable marriage, has a brief love affair and then dies.

The book become a bestseller in Israel, the Netherlands and France. It sold more than 160,000 copies in the UK last year, ushering in a frenzy for so-called Lazarus literature: reissues of neglected or out-of-print texts. Robert Walser, Elizabeth Taylor, Hans Fallada and Stefan Zweig have all enjoyed a posthumous upsurge over the past 12 months, buoyed by imprints such as Serpent’s Tail Classics, Pushkin Press and Melville House’s Neversink Library.

Now the publisher Robin Robertson, who brought Stoner to Random House in 2003, believes he has found its successor.

Breece D’J Pancake was born in West Virginia in 1952. He grew up in an area known locally as “Chemical Valley”, among the region’s many coal mines. An earnest, self-motivated student, he attended Marshall University and taught for two years at a military academy before accepting a fellowship at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. There he wrote 12 short stories, three of which were bought by the Atlantic Monthly (the magazine responsible for the elision of Dexter and John to “D’J” – an printer’s error which amused Pancake for its pseudo-aristocratic air).

When Pancake died, aged 27, from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head, Kurt Vonnegut wrote to John Casey, the young man’s writing instructor at Virginia: “I give you my word that he is merely the best writer, the most sincere writer I’ve ever read,” he wrote. “What I suspect is that it hurt too much, was no fun at all to be that good. You and I will never know.”

Those 12 stories, now published in paperback as Trilobites and Other Stories (Vintage Classics, £8.99), tell of difficult lives defined by geology. “Ain’t nothin’ but coal in this here hole. When we gonna hit gold?” asks a pit worker poignantly, early in the collection. The snappy, rusty vernacular, first-hand knowledge of physical labour’s debilitating effects on the body and spirit, coupled with vivid, painterly depictions of rural Appalachia, are the parts that make the sum of Pancake’s impressive output.

What emerges is an anxiety not so much about being good, but about being inferior. Amid the Southern gentry of Charlottesville, Pancake struggled to define his position. He both relished and detested his status as a “hillbilly”. He wrote to his mother explaining that his landlady had asked him to be a waiter at a party for the English department that should have counted him among its members: “[She] said if I didn’t she’d have to hire a coloured and they don’t mix a good drink. That tells me where I stand . . .”

Like Stoner’s sad professor, Pancake – and so many of his characters – considered himself a disappointment. Now that judgement is out of his hands.