Pancake's characters are all operating on everything they've got, which is about 70% of what they need. His protagonists, by and large, hunt through these stories driven by hunger and led by a stubborn sense that a sort of perfection can be found in simple human kindness. They're bursting with a desire to give everything of themselves, but seldom find takers. The stories themselves are descriptions of good, flawed people--noble people--operating on tiny margins, making bruising marches through the human scree that accumulates when most everyone's scrapping to make ends meet, when most everyone's got their sights set, understandably, closer to their own feet than to the stars (yeah, "eyes on the stars" is a trite little formula; in "Trilobites", Pancake uses fossils to suggest what I'm fumbling for here, the terrifyingly abiding awareness of something impossibly distant but immediately apprehendable, and good).
It might help if you've spent some time in Appalachia and have a non-ironic appreciation for the place. But that'll just give you a readier sense of Pancake's wonderfully wrought physical and human landscapes. I've seen these characters in Brooklyn and Ecuador and rural Minnesota and Chicago. Pancake was one of the greatest American short-story writers, and our times are righter for his work than his were.