‘Hollow’ by Breece D’J Pancake

Breece D’J Pancake was born in Charleston, West Virginia in 1952.

Breece D’J Pancake conjured small worlds so grim, desperate, and ugly that the greatest joy of reading his stories is leaving them. We might exhale in relief at getting to exit the stark reality of ‘Hollow,’ but Pancake’s characters are so real that it feels like they must go on living in stale despair long after we’ve closed the book. The viewpoint character in ‘Hollow’ is a West Virginia coal miner named Buddy. His girlfriend Sally is about to leave him—and take the dog to boot. He lets her go but reclaims his dog. The next evening, Buddy wakes up on the floor of his trailer, hungover: “Looking into the mirror, he saw the imprints of the carpet pattern on his cheek, the poison hanging beneath his eyes. He wanted to throw up, but could not.” The story ends with Buddy hunting and killing a pregnant doe:

He kicked the unborn fawn aside, disconnected the doe’s guts, sliced off the hindquarters, and let the rest of the carcass fall for the scavengers to find. He laid three small slices of liver aside in the snow to cool . . . He bit off a piece of the cool, raw liver and, as it juiced between his teeth, watched the final throes of the fawn in the steamy snow.

In Faulkner’s story ‘The Bear,’ the hunt leads to epiphany (even if the revelation results in repudiation); in ‘Hollow,’ the hunt merely confirms a core emptiness of the modern condition. The violence might be cathartic, but the catharsis is only temporary. There’s no Territory for Buddy to light out for, no grace, no epiphany.

First published in The Atlantic, Oct. 1982 and first collected in in The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake, Little, Brown, 1983; read it online here

‘First Day of Winter’ by Breece D’J Pancake

Coal miners die with dusty lungs, flowers wilt in acid rains, and a writer, lost to us too early, stands here witness to the wreckage and depredation of industrial violence in the ‘chemical valley’. Set in the Appalachian coal country of West Virginia, the stories of Pancake—a small but scintillating oeuvre—is full of raw and throbbing prose, sentences teeming with feeling and tactility, and painful impressions of loss and decay. They constitute difficult material. ‘First Day of Winter’ is the last one in Pancake’s only collection, a deeply resonant and moving story of Hollis and his way of coming to terms with his ailing, aging parents.
I was pointed to the story by a friend in 2019, after a screening of Ellen Page’s heart-wrenching documentary There is Something in the Water (based on a book by the same name by Ingrid Waldron). I have since become interested in the ways we depict industrial wreckage and degradation, across all media.

First published in The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake, Little, Brown, 1983