BOOK REVIEW / Singing the blue-collar blues: 'Trilobites' - Breece D'J Pancake: Secker, 7.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
THESE tales of West Virginia are peopled by folk with nothing to laugh about. A second mate on a tug, whiling away New Year's Eve, might be speaking for them all when he says, having burned his mouth with coffee: 'Nothing ever goes just the way it should.'

The dozen stories amount to a symphony of blue-collar blues. Their protagonists are mechanics, drivers, farmers and miners. Nearly everyone is trapped - by circumstances, by history and by the wooded, mountainous land itself. Even when they make escape bids they fail. 'When I was a young punk,' says Colly in the title story, 'I tried to run away from home. I was walking through this meadow on the other side of the Hill and this shadow passed over me. I honest to god thought it was a pterodactyl. It was a damned airplane. I was so damned mad, I came home.'

The language Pancake uses to describe these lives is spare and spiky: reflections in a window become 'ghosts against the black gloss of glass'. His prose peels back the skin of the characters to reveal the red, quivering mess beneath, just as Colly shells a snapping turtle: 'A little blood oozes from the gaff wound into the grit, but when I slice, a puddle forms.'

Guns figure prominently in this more than promising collection. There is the odd wobble in tone, an occasional straining for effect, but at least three of the tales are perfect: things do go just the way they should. Pancake was haunted, though. In 1979, aged 26, he killed himself with a shotgun.