I was reminded of Breece D'J Pancake's collection of stories by this bit in the NYTimes. (Not really the Times, but a "Times Blog," whatever that is -- all it meant to me was that I couldn't find it again when I searched the NYT website and had to unearth the link in my history).
I discovered him on the shelf of my college bookstore, where I used to go and blow my dishwashing money once every couple of weeks. It was his name that made me buy the book, which had been out for a few years by that time. And the stories were good: strong, distinctive, confident, and rural. I was from a small town and felt unsophisticated at my exclusive little college, ignorant of stylish things, and found Pancake inspiring in the way he wrote about every detail of life around him, without regard to hipness or sophistication or fashion. I could do something like that, I thought. I could never be Updike or Jay McInerney, but maybe I could be something like this country guy with the hilarious name.
Over the years I kept the book but forgot the stories. What I did remember was the strange story James Alan McPherson tells in the book's prologue: how Breece Pancake killed himself under mysterious circumstances a few years before the publication of the book. In later years I would come to know some people like that -- talented, tormented people who would never make it to middle age. But at the time I was shocked. How could you get published in The Atlantic, and then think life wasn't worth living?
Rereading the stories now, I find them odder than I remember, and more difficult and ambitious. There is something tough and unyielding about them. If Pancake had lived, I think his later work, more stories and probably novels, would have told us how to read these earlier stories. Sometimes when you read early work -- for example Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping -- you think, How in the world will she follow up on this? But with Breece Pancake, you think, This is all going somewhere interesting, but where? Unfortunately we will never know.
You don't experience the work of someone who later committed suicide the same way as you would if they had not. Nick Drake's work is colored, for me, by his short life, and after Elliot Smith died (probably by his own hand) I heard his songs differently -- radically so. Every suicide is a mystery, and the body of work left behind turns into a collection of clues.