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

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.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Our Island Story

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How Dame Vera Lynn was told to “posh her accent up”

Radio 2’s 100th-birthday tribute reveals how Lynn was forced to change her voice.

“I remember seeing her near an elephant, and this elephant rolled over a bit and she had to get out of the way . . .” Vic Knibb, the vice-chairman of the veterans’ group the Burma Star Association, was one of the thousands of British soldiers serving in the Far East during the Second World War who came across Vera Lynn in the jungle, singing from the back of a Jeep, accompanied by an out-of-tune piano.

Speaking in Radio 2’s celebration of the singer’s 100th birthday, Vera Lynn: the Sweetheart of the United Kingdom (Sunday 19 March, 8pm), Knibb and others recalled what it meant to them that Lynn travelled so far to perform for the so-called Forgotten Army in Burma. Unlike other entertainers, who stayed in Europe or visited only military hospitals in the UK, she deliberately went where few others did – where she felt she was needed by “the boys”.

The programme, which featured a rare interview with Lynn herself, was dominated by clips of her recordings from the Thirties and Forties. We heard frequent extracts from “The White Cliffs of Dover”, “We’ll Meet Again” and “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square”. The contrast between these two voices, separated by more than six decades, was the most arresting thing this otherwise pedestrian documentary had to offer. The now gravelly-voiced centenarian sang, in her youth, with a smooth, effortless-sounding tone and crystal-clear diction. But how did the cockney daughter of a plumber from East Ham end up singing with received pronunciation?

The answer, as ever in Britain, is class. Lynn had no formal musical training, and as she had been performing in working men’s clubs from the age of seven, she was considered closer to a musical-hall crooner than a “proper” singer. But with her small vocal range and flawless self-taught technique, she chose her own songs to suit her voice. The BBC, for which she made her hugely popular radio show Sincerely Yours, requested that she take elocution lessons to “posh her accent up” and even at one point took her show off air for 18 months. “Every­body’s Sweetheart” wasn’t immune from snobbishness, it seems. 

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution