SAMANTHA HUNT

THE SECRET HANDSHAKE

IN THE GREAT TRADITION OF SOUTHERN LITERATURE, THE FICTION OF BREECE D’J PANCAKE BRINGS US DOWN TO HADES AND ACTS AS A ROAD MAP TO DISASTERS THAT THE OPPRESSION OF POVERTY CAN WREAK ON A LIFE.

DISCUSSED: Coal Mines, Gastropods, Self-Myth, The University of Virginia, Ghosts, JT LeRoy, The Atlantic Monthly, Faulkner, Catholic Guilt, Flannery O’Connor, Phil Ochs, Woodie Guthrie, Joe Hill, Frank Little, Regionally Specific Dialect, Turkles, “Trilobites,” Revelation 3:15–16, Union Carbide, Jayson Blair, “The Honored Dead,” Vietnam, Mound Builders, Johnny Reb, 8 April 1979

From 1961 to 1992, underneath the exclusive Greenbrier hotel of White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, the United States government built and maintained an extensive, highly secret, atomic bomb shelter for the members of Congress. Before the hiding place was exposed by a Washington Post reporter, the bunker had been outfitted with dormitories, staffed kitchens, subscriptions to Sports Illustrated (though one wonders about the perpetuity of both sports and subscriptions once the bombs start to fly), a room for the Senate, a room for the House, a hall for joint meetings, an internal power plant, seventy-four urinals, a television station with Capitol dome backdrop ready for emergency broadcasts, and even a weapons cache that included billy clubs for fighting off any radioactive locals who might try breaking down the two-foot-thick, steel-reinforced cement walls after the nuclear holocaust.

Though the Greenbrier is perhaps the best furnished, it is only one of many secrets hiding underneath West Virginia: poorly mapped coal mines, cavities thick with natural gas, forgotten Civil War cemeteries, and hills where gastropods sleep underneath the dirt in ridges rich with Carboniferous period fossils dating back three hundred million years to when the Mountain State was nothing more than swampland. Appropriately enough, the writer Breece D’J Pancake hails from this state, a land marked by inequities and secret tunnels. As his little-known body of work consistently prowls through dark territory, spelunking the depths of American desperation and poverty, the stories of Breece D’J Pancake could easily be added to this list of West Virginia’s underground secrets.

Born in 1952 to Helen and Clarence “Bud” Pancake, Breece was dead a mere twenty-six years later, leaving behind only one slim volume of prose, twelve stories as devastating as his premature death. Little, Brown published The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake in 1983, four years after his death. What his life lacked in length, it made up for in myth. Pancake has become legendary—in part because he let few people ever get close enough to know the truth, in part because creating legends was what he was born for. Stories, many of them true, like the one about how he stocked his University of Virginia refrigerator with squirrel meat or how his father and his best friend died in the same month or even how his ghost visits his family and friends, have been exchanged so many times between his rabidly devoted fans (including writers as diverse as Andre Dubus III and JT LeRoy) that the stories have grown malleable with handling.

Pancake often more closely resembles a character from fiction rather than one who wrote fiction. Consider his nearly unpronounceable middle name. The strangely enjambed initials are not his birthright but rather a typographical galley error made on “Trilobites” (1977), his first published story, by the Atlantic Monthly. Pancake liked the oddity of D’J and its nod to a skewed aristocratic membership. He adopted D’J as his own. He’s an invention, his own best character. His stubborn nobility, sly sense of humor, and tragic, untimely death make Pancake a shade of Faulkner’s Darl, Twain’s Huck Finn, and even Joyce’s Michael Furey, coughing his young lungs up outside Greta’s window until finally surrendering to death. Pancake would be too perfect a creation for fiction if not for the fact that he was real.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

To read the full piece, please purchase a copy of the magazine from The McSweeney’s Store.

Samantha Hunt is the author of a novel called The Seas. She lives in New York.

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