Benedict, Pinckney 1964-
BENEDICT, Pinckney 1964-
PERSONAL: Born April 12, 1964, in Lewisburg, WV; son of Cleveland Keith (a farmer and politician) and Ann Farrar Arthur Benedict; married Laura Philpot (a writer), 1990; children: Nora, Cleveland. Education: Attended a private high school in Pennsylvania; Princeton University, B.A., 1986; University of Iowa, M.F.A., 1988.
ADDRESSES: Office—Hollins University, Roanoke, VA 24020.
CAREER: Writer, 1987—. Hope College, Holland, MI, associate professor of English, 1996-99; Hollins University, Roanoke, VA, associate professor of English, 1999—; Pushcart Anthology Series, contributing editor. Has also taught creative writing at Ohio State University, Oberlin College, The Hill, and Princeton University. Worked as writer for television producer David Milch.
AWARDS, HONORS: Nelson Algren Short Story Award, Chicago Tribune, 1986, for the short story "The Sutton Pie Safe"; John Steinbeck Award (Great Britain), 1995, for Dogs of God; shortlisted for Hammett Award for Excellence in Crime Writing; Henfield Foundations Transatlantic Review Awards; National Endowment for the Arts grant for outstanding contribution to American literature; Town Smokes, The Wrecking Yard, and Dogs of God were named Notable Books by New York Times Book Review.
Town Smokes (stories), Ontario Review Press (New York, NY), 1987.
The Wrecking Yard and Other Stories (stories), Doubleday (New York, NY), 1992.
Dogs of God (novel), Doubleday (New York, NY), 1994.
Four Days (film adaptation of the novel by John Buell), Amerique Films, 1999.
Contributor of stories and nonfiction to publications, including Ontario Review, Grazia (Italy), Gunzo (Japan), and The Oxford Book of American Short Stories. Also author of one-act, full-length, and musical plays.
WORK IN PROGRESS: A screenplay for Dogs of God for Gerard de Thame Films, London, England.
SIDELIGHTS: Pinckney Benedict is an award-winning short story writer and novelist whose visceral and often violent tales paint a grim picture of life in the mountainous regions of his native West Virginia. The author grew up on his parents' dairy farm near Lewisberg. While many of his writings depict rugged, backwoods people, Benedict grew up in comfortable circumstances, attending The Hill School near Philadelphia and then going on to Princeton University, where he studied with Joyce Carol Oates. Always fond of reading, his early influences included the sea-adventures of Joseph Conrad and Herman Melville, horror and science fiction by Phillip K. Dick, H. P. Lovecraft, and Stephen King, and the idiosyncratic writing of another West Virginian, Breece D'J Pancake. Pancake's short stories were published after the author took his own life at the age of twenty-seven. They are peopled with working-class Appalachians, struggling to get by. Pancake's stories were a major inspiration to Benedict, and as Brad Vice commented in Dictionary of Literary Biography, "It is easy to think of Benedict's early stories in Town Smokes as elegies for Pancake. Benedict adopted Pancake's style, marked by its cool, laconic prose and its careful attention to local dialect, making a powerful vehicle for its subject matter, the colorful, often frightening underclass of West Virginia. Soon after the publication of Town Smokes in 1987, the author was heralded as the most promising hybrid that gritty minimalist and Southern regionalism had to offer."
Discussing his work with Bruce Weber of New York Times Book Review, Benedict commented that "the mountains are pretty wild places," filled with "a lot of very . . . independent people" with "strong personalities." West Virginia's position between the North and South suits Benedict symbolically. "Neither region wants us," Benedict explained to U.S. News & World Report contributor Viva Hardigg. "So it does feel like we're sort of a doorway. And that's fine. Because that's the area I like to explore in my work—these places where there's no mainstream to be outside of."
Violence figures prominently in many of the tales collected in Town Smokes. Among the characters in these stories are a fifteen-year-old son who despises his father for dying in a lumbering accident, a young man who kills his sick dog with a .45 pistol, and a mother and son who must attempt a night-time rescue of her husband from an enraged moonshiner. "Booze" is a kind of Moby Dick story, with a giant white hog filling in for Melville's whale. Diane McWhorter, writing for the New York Times Book Review, praised Town Smokes as "an often heart-stopping literary performance." "The assured tone that distinguishes this debut would be remarkable for any author, but it's especially notable given the age of Pinckney Benedict," stated Richard Panek in Chicago Tribune Books. "At twenty-three, he has delivered a collection that is almost free of immature material. Aside from one attempt at magical realism that misses, all the stories in Town Smokes command respect through their impressive authority." McWhorter added: "Mr. Benedict has taken big risks—particularly in using a dialect that, failing perfect pitch, would have badly got on one's nerves—and his prose achieves excellent harmony between voice and virtuosity. His lyricism never plays his flinty characters false."
Benedict followed Town Smokes with The Wrecking Yard and Other Stories. In this collection, Benedict portrays numerous confrontations, including a fight between a rejected lover and a Vietnam veteran gone mad, a carnival worker who electrocutes her lovers, and a rapist being punished at the hands of a vigilante posse. Although there is certainly an element of brutality, the author also shows "a romantic lightheartedness missing in his previous work. Much of the isolation and loneliness that thematically dominated Town Smokes is renovated into a sort of comic aggression in The Wrecking Yard," reflected Vice. "Benedict's prose is more polished than in his previous border fiction." Douglas Glover similarly noted in Tribune Books, "Benedict's style is laconic and deadpan. He gets comic mileage from the tension between the dry, matter-of-fact way he writes and the terrible and outlandish things he describes." Glover stated that Benedict "is at his best when he ignores the contemporary siren calls of sentimental realism and interpersonal sensitivity and simply lets the violence overflow, propelling the reader into a world of strange and macabre beauty." Vice found that with this collection, Benedict "developed beyond the early influence of Pancake to a form more closely resembling the Gothic stories of Flannery O'Connor or [Eudora] Welty."
Benedict's next published book was his first novel, Dogs of God. Set on a remote mountaintop, the book centers on the Tannhauser, a twelve-fingered man who uses enslaved Mexicans to grow marijuana at a strange compound that was previously a military installation, a resort hotel, and a women's prison. Tannhauser calls his kingdom "El Dorado," but he is unaware that the Drug Enforcement Agency is planning a raid, aided by a corrupt local sheriff. Another compelling character is Goody, a boxer who once killed a man in a fixed fight. Goody is forced to fight one of Tannhauser's men as an entertainment for visiting Mafia members. Dogs of God ends in a horrific massacre that takes the life of nearly every character. The novel was highly praised by numerous critics. Chris Goodrich, writing in Los Angeles Times, called it "about as fine a first novel as one could want." Vice noted that while "the book is set in West Virginia and is written in Benedict's trademark lucid, laconic prose, . . . Benedict's mastery over realistic narrative actually creates a strangely postmodern novel." Alexander Harrison, a writer for Times Literary Supplement, found great depth in Benedict's writing, and he particularly pointed out the way in which "the calm, ambiguous tone of Benedict's writing poses questions, not only about his characters but about the wider world from which they seem so cut off." Vice summarized: "[Benedict is] capable of writing prose that is at once simple and spare but also philosophically complicated. There are no easy answers for the poverty-stricken farmers and ridgerunners that populate his stories. Endurance seems to be Benedict's most consistent theme; it is the only virtue in a world where the powers of chance and fate conspire to extinguish both the ignominious and the noble alike."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 244: American Short-Story Writers since World War II, Fourth Series, Gale (Detroit, MI), 2001.
Appalachian Heritage, fall, 1988, Jim Wayne Miller, "New Generation of Savages Sighted in West Virginia," pp. 28-33.
Appalachian Journal, spring, 1988, Bob Snyder, "Pancake and Benedict," pp. 276-283; fall, 1992, Thomas E. Douglass, interview with Pinckney Benedict, pp. 68-74; winter, 1993, John Alexander Williams, "Unpacking Pinckney in Poland," pp. 162-175; spring, 1998, Angela B. Freeman, "The Origins and Fortunes of Negativity: The West Virginia Worlds of Kromer, Pancake, and Benedict," pp. 244-269.
Bloomsbury Review, May-June 1995, p. 23.
Georgian Review, winter, 1987, pp. 819-826.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, February 2, 1992, p. 6; March 27, 1994, pp. 3, 7.
New Statesman & Society, July 1, 1994, Laurence O'Toole, review of Dogs of God, pp. 39-40.
New York Times Book Review, July 12, 1987, Bruce Weber, interview with Pinckney Benedict, pp. 13-14; February 9, 1992, p. 14; February 6, 1994, p. 31.
Novel and Short Story Writers Market, January 1, 2000, Brad Vice, interview with Pinckney Benedict, pp. 35-38.
Publishers Weekly, March 27, 1987, pp. 42-43.
Southern Review, spring, 1994, Michael Griffith, review of Dogs of God, p. 379.
Times Literary Supplement, March 6, 1992, p. 21; July 1, 1994, p. 20.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), June 1, 1987, p. 3; January 26, 1992, p. 7; February 27, 1994, pp. 3, 11.
U.S. News & World Report, May 16, 1994, Viva Hardigg, interview with Pinckney Benedict, p. 63.
Washington Post, November 2, 1987, pp. C1, C12.*