Pancake, a suicide in 1979 at age 27, studied with both James Alan McPherson and John Casey--who provide, respectively, a foreword and afterword to this collection. And, indeed, Pancake had a distinctive talent, writing in a direct, raw way about the unshined-upon hollars of his native West Virginia. His best stories--""First Day In Winter,"" ""The Mark,"" and ""Fox Hunters""--all have a dank claustrophobia to them, a fur nearly moldy with poverty and violent death (guns, hunting, reckless driving, prizefighting, war). The language in all the pieces runs through like gristle: it seems more spat out than chewed over. The stories, too, are all fairly short, never overstaying their edgy welcome. And this perpetually against-the-grain quality gives Pancake's tales their distinction. It also contributes, however, to a relentless sameness about them: the prose, keyed to one note only (depression), is overly syncopated; and none of the stories achieves a real shape. Nervously pent-up fiction, then, notable for its dour truthfulness, but limited in scope or appeal--tragically so, considering Pancake's youth and unnaturally short career.