Aug 24, 2016
Human Stories, Poetry Stories: A Review of Ann Pancake's Me and My Daddy Listen to Bob Marley
The second time I talked to Ann Pancake, she told me she was taking a walk down to the river, asked if I knew how to get there. My boyfriend and I had just gotten back to our apartment from campus, me from a conference with her, the visiting writer in my undergraduate program. I was gushing, blown away, telling my boyfriend how she could see stories for what they are and for their potential, her attention to language, to word-sounds, to killer endings. And there she was, my new-found literary hero, in front of my apartment, asking how to get down to the river—the Susquehanna, the river I grew up next to all my life and loved the most. Imagine Chekov strolling down the street past the Sunoco with its 11PM meth deals, the gauntlet of college-kid bars. Imagine Hemingway cutting through the two rival tattoo shops on Market Street to get to Taste of Philly subs. Imagine these, and you can imagine what I was feeling as I told her how best to get to the river: You have to turn back around, take a right at the light. Go over the green bridge, and keep going, and keep going, and there it is.
Most visiting writers stayed in the Selinsgrove Inn—historic, comfortable, close to the bars—and ventured out only to read, to attend classes, to drink, and network. Not Ann. I saw Ann twice more in town—always walking, walking past the tiny greasy restaurants and kitschy shops that make a small town. It’s this that I ultimately admire the most in her writing—not the beautiful, heart-rending language, not the careful wedding of story and action and character, but her realness. Even when a character is descending further into sugar-induced hallucinations, or tracking bones in woods far from home, everything about the piece feels real: the characters, their mannerisms, and what ultimately happens to them.
The stories in Me and My Daddy Listen to Bob Marley range from relatively straightforward narratives—“In Such Light” and “Arsonists”—to freewheeling falls through language that take us deeper into the narrator’s brain—“Dog Song” and “Coop.” This is Pancake’s second story collection—after Given Ground and the novel Strange as This Weather Has Been—and the pieces just keep getting better. Pancake mixes things up. Narrators range from a ten year-old girl in the seventies, navigating the worlds of death and adulthood—at times simultaneously—to a little boy whose daddy is a meth addict. Regardless of story, of setting, of intention, Pancake treats each character with dignity and sympathy, at the same time cutting them open to expose their flaws. These flaws are what drive the deeper stories in this collection. In Me and My Daddy there are no easy choices—to frack or not to frack, to press charges against your druggie son or not—and every action sets off a spiraling, tense reaction that takes the reader through to the story’s end.
The relatively straightforward narrator of the novella "In Such Light" allows a careful, nuanced look at Janie, a young woman working in the town’s failing, grand movie theater she’s loved all her life. Through Janie’s narration, we see her closeness with her mentally disabled Uncle Bobby, whom she gets drunk with on Southern Comfort at the movies, at home, on the porch. Through tense, character-building scenes, the novella captures Janie, wholly and completely so that you know her moods and desires by the end of the novella, perhaps better than you know your own.
Compelling is Pancake’s experimentation with voice and perspective, like in "Dog Song" or "Sugar's Up." “Dog Song” is some of the best work I’ve ever seen in an immersive story. A backwoods idiot some call Matley, with dogs all over his trailer, all over his land, and someone killing them. “Him. Helling up a hillside in a thin snow won’t melt, rock-broke, brush-broke, crust-cracking snow throat felt, the winter a cold one…” starts the story. Read that sentence again. Now read it out loud. I’ve reread every single word in this story trying to figure out how Pancake does it, how she makes the language match the story match the character, and how they all build on each other.
Take “Coop.” Pancake takes the familiar camp story—think Welty’s “Moon Lake”—and infuses it with a sense of menace and poetry, of outsider vs. insider. She describes the “sweaty surplus cheese” the poor girls have to eat, narrating the story with the lyricism of “sun flash skin, water, skin, water, which?” that describes the allure of the older camp counselors. “Coop” is short but powerful, every word tense, racing through the pages until the inevitable finish. Pancake uses the language of Appalachia and runs with it, marrying a down-home method of talking with a beautiful poetic sense.
But it’s not enough to have a powerful ear for language or an intense knowledge of people. Each needs to arise naturally out of its telling. "Rockhounds" marries the loaded subject of fracking to the narrator, contrasting the land-ruining horror with the narrator’s desire to sign the lease, to make money. “Sugar’s Up” starts innocently enough. Calvin narrates his many grievances with his town—the McDonald’s sandwiches, the tourists, the Civil War celebration “Bygone Days”—but the piece culminates in an inevitable, surprising ending.
In Me and My Daddy Listen to Bob Marley, Pancake takes what it means to be from a place and infuses it into every story, every sentence, every image. The important thing—the thing Pancake does so well—is that you never feel like you’re reading “a West Virginia book.” In an ever-increasingly global world, these stories are specific yet relatable through their emotion, their characters.
On my desk, at all times, I keep a stack of books that I turn to time and again—Richard Ford, Bobbie Ann Mason, Joyce Carol Oates, William Gay, and Ann Pancake. Pancake’s stories stand out as more than just “regional,” transcending that sometimes dirty word in literature. These are human stories, poetry-stories, great stories. There’s not a single dud in here.