Tuesday, March 8, 2011

These Mountains, These Words: Part 3

One of the reasons Hemingway’s work endures is because of its unadorned prose and deeper levels of meaning. This is widely known. But like Breece Pancake’s stories, many of Hemingway’s, especially those from his first collection, In Our Time, have that specific Michigan woodland setting.

For Pancake, setting was paramount to his goals. The West Virginia mountains and coal mines and cornfields have a simplicity and hardness that is reflected in works such as “Trilobites,” “Hollow” and “The Honored Dead,” and are widely considered to be metaphorical reinventions of the characters that people Pancake’s stories, cornered by circumstance, existing amid, in spite of and in opposition to time and tradition, worn down, rounded and weathered, claustrophobic. Setting is the mirror at which each of Pancake’s characters stand, evaluating themselves in uncomplicated terms through what can very often be complicated situations. Everything Pancake achieves through setting as metaphor and as a character in its own right, lends itself to his overall style and approach of forcing himself to disappear into that landscape, into the language, allowing these elements to take center stage alongside his characters.

The short story, “Hollow,” opens with the main character, Buddy, working in the coal mine. The description is pared down, but powerful, and lets the reader know right away that setting is of great importance.

"Hunched on his knees in the three-foot seam, Buddy was lost in the rhythm of the truck mine’s relay; the glitter of coal and sandstone in his cap light, the setting and lifting and pouring. This was nothing like the real mine, no deep tunnels or mantrips, only the setting, lifting, pouring, only the light-flash from caps in the relay."

Here we have the notion and theme of being closed in, trapped, which is a common and underlying feeling among many Appalachians. The rolling mountains stand ancient and immovable at every corner, at every sharp curve in the road, a 280 million-year old reminder of limitations, the perpetual life -- work, eat, sleep -- and forever these basic things, with the surrounding valleys and ridges little more than long-vegetated prison walls to either be scaled or fretted over. This mentality can be found throughout Appalachia, haunting its residents and given voice through Pancake’s characters.

In his hometown of Milton, West Virginia, one of Pancake’s childhood friends, Robert Jackson, was interviewed as part of the same National Public Radio profile for which McPherson had offered his comments. Jackson, echoing Vonnegut’s comments to Casey concerning Pancake’s suicide, offered his opinion and spoke briefly about a key theme underscoring much of Pancake’s work, that of escaping both place and limitation.

"You know who I am in the book? I’m Chester the Shithouse Mouse, the one who got out. I got through life a lot easier than Breece did. Probably because I wasn’t as smart. I chose to compromise a lot more than Breece did. Breece was not going to compromise what he knew was the right, true, good way and there was only one way for Breece. And we all know that as we mature if we are going to live a halfway normal life that there are compromises that you make along the way to make life a little more simple."

Jackson’s mention of the “The Salvation of Me” character Chester is telling as it illuminates the duel sense of envy and disgust at those who managed to escape the confines of the mountains. Character would also become a primary avenue through which Pancake would erase himself and bring a more pure story to the page. But, in the beginning, at least, it was setting, his West Virginia, that would guide the young college student on his path to literary stardom. Returning to the short story “Trilobites,” which McPherson claims to be his favorite because it shows clearly the mutual relationship between the landscape and nature, Pancake takes us even further into the structure of his mountain world, beneath even the layered social structure of West Virginia, below the coal mine and the bars.

In this story Pancake introduces arguably his strongest brushstroke of setting, the ancient claim that holds his homeland, the fossils that float forever under the weight of the world’s oldest mountain range. In this image Pancake tosses aside any flare for words the lesser writer might have relied upon and drives home theme in an efficient way, combining the idea of history and the trappings that can develop from that particular land’s history. Inside the guts of the mountains are trilobites, arrowheads, and other items from another time that speak to the reader of Pancake’s work today, no matter where they may call home. Loneliness, desperation and insurmountable odds are not exclusive to the people of Appalachia, only highlighted along its ridges like cracks in a coal seam. The imagery speaks volumes while the writer only presents the case and steps aside, allowing this idea, this power, to take hold in its own right.

In “Trilobites,” Pancake uses this prehistoric marine creature as a metaphorical equivalent to the story’s main character, Colly, smothered beneath the pressure of the mountains and the expectations of his widowed mother to take up the responsibilities his dead father left in the form of a farm that needs tended. Colly’s frustrations, the tug and pull of his sense of purpose against his desire for something better, is the emotional centerpiece of the story and achieved through the character’s inner thoughts and the means by which they shadow that of the land itself. In the following passage, Colly’s inner struggle is made real for the reader through his description of the fields his father worked so hard to maintain. He’s pulled the old tractor from its place and driven out to the field.

"I sit there, smoke, look again at the cane. The rows curve tight, but around them is a sort of scar of clay, and the leaves have a purplish blight. I don’t wonder about the blight. I know the cane is too far gone to worry about the blight. Far off, somebody chops wood, and the ax-bites echo back to me. The hillsides are baked here and have heat ghosts. Our cattle move to the wind gap, and the birds hide in caps of trees where we never cut the timber for pasture. I look at the wrinkly old boundary post. Pop set it when the hobo and soldier days were over. It is a locust-tree post and it will be there a long time. A few dead morning glories cling to it."

The setting is telling the story for the author in this passage. The careful and economical use of words such as “ghosts” and “dead” to describe the heat and morning glories all echo to the reader the underlying tension of picking up where his father left off after dying. Also the reference to the boundary post and how long it will last and continue to be there on the land works to express Colly’s inner, if common, wish that his father were still alive. We are left to wonder to what extent Colly wishes this so as to ease himself of the burdens that were left to him after his father’s death and what portion of this is simple sadness for the loss of a loved one. All of this complexity from what appears a simple descriptive passage. Also, the key description of setting in the passage, the mention of the blight on the cane and how it was too far gone to be concerned with adds theme to the mix. All this detail within such a small space does not happen accidentally, any writer knows this, and works each session either making it to this level or failing. For Pancake, hard work was a tradition brought from the mountains and a way of life he carried over into his day to day efforts as a writer.

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