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Winter 2011

Scraps of Inexplicable Suffering

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Mimi Chibb

The Mountain Lion
by Jean Stafford.
NYRB Classics, 2010,
$14.95 paper.

Jean Stafford’s strange, dark novel The Mountain Lion is the story of two children, Molly and Ralph. When we first meet them they’re eight and ten years old, respectively, and inseparable—a happy “they” that tells jokes in tandem. (Ralph: What are shoes made of? Molly: Hide. Ralph: Hide? Why should I hide? Molly: Hide! Hide! The cow’s outside! Ralph: Oh, let the old cow come in. I’m not afraid.) They’re both still recovering from scarlet fever and, sent home from school one afternoon with nosebleeds, they go tearing off through a landscape that has the dreamlike vividness of childhood reality. They pass orange groves and eventually reach a row of palm trees; they pass “the Wash” where they sometimes “find bright-colored stones, pink and green and yellow and blue,” and where a monster called the Skalawag prowls. They pass the postmistress’s house, which has a sign in front that says “Dew Drop Inn” and “a doghouse built exactly like Dew Drop Inn” with “a sign that [says] ‘Dun Rovin’ because Miss Runyon’s sheep dog was named Rover.”

As they accrue, these details start to glitter with brittleness and to feel subtly unhappy. They are odd and true, and they sound as if they ought to be funny, but they’re not. Funny, that is. Or at least they’re not funny in the quaint, slight way you might at first imagine they’re laying claim to be. Stafford lets the terror in them hover close to the surface, with the children mock-running repeatedly from mock-dangers as they move from school to home; once, when they pause at a picket fence, Ralph’s “nose [drips] on the palings so that two of them looked like spears that had struck home.” Along the way, we learn that Ralph and Molly are excited because their adored step-grandfather, Grandpa Kenyon, will be arriving that day at their home in Covina, California, for his annual visit. We learn that this annual visit is painful both for him and his stepdaughter, the children’s mother, Mrs. Fawcett, who raised Grandpa Kenyon’s son, her half-brother Claude, after her mother died in childbirth. We learn that Grandpa Kenyon owns ranches in Oklahoma, Texas, and Colorado, and that he’s “hunted every animal indigenous to the North American continent.” We learn that Mrs. Fawcett reveres her own supposedly cultured and charming father, Grandfather Bonney, who would start conversation at the dinner table by asking, for example, “Today I was just wondering how much you girls know about Apollo. Do you realize how often he figures in poems, pictures and statues?” (The novel satirizes this kind of bourgeois pretension wickedly. Several drawing room scenes skewer Mrs. Fawcett and her friends for their Grandfather Bonney-esque chatter, and each of these scenes hums with energy, as if the novel were animated into flight by its zinging rage.)

We learn that Ralph and Molly have two pretty, fine-boned older sisters named Leah and Rachel, who are “completely at ease…when they [pass] the cakes at tea or [play] duets, never having to be coaxed.” We learn that Ralph and Molly, by contrast, are “thin, pallid, and runny-nosed” and “so self-conscious that they could not sit on a chair without looking as if they perched on a precarious cliff.” And we also learn that Molly has written a poem called “Gravel”:

Gravel, gravel on the ground
Lying there so safe and sound,
Why is it you look so dead?
Is it because you have no head?

Ralph can’t make sense of “Gravel,” and when Molly starts reciting it to him as the two of them lie side by side on the lawn, he is astonished to discover that Molly “had not been thinking the same thoughts he had at all.”

I think you can begin to get a taste from all this of the peculiar entanglement of the novel’s world. There are a step-grandfather, a step-brother who’s also part son, and four siblings separated into two wildly different pairs. Mr. Fawcett, the children’s father, is dead, and his memory is mainly covered over by Grandfather Bonney’s heavy shadow. As I was reading the book the first time, I took careful stock of this convoluted family, feeling that its structure was at once true to life and oddly hallucinatory. I still expected, however, that Grandpa Kenyon’s visit would play out as a social drama, with a few graceful or devastating moments of epiphany. Then, I guessed, the children would travel with Grandpa Kenyon to one of the ranches, where they would spend time with Claude. There would be more small, lovely moments.

I had no idea what I was in for.

In chapter two, Grandpa Kenyon has a stroke or a heart attack almost the moment he arrives. He dies three days later. Claude comes to Covina to see him buried, and invites Ralph and Molly to spend the summer at the ranch in Colorado. We see the children through their first visit; then, abruptly, we’re back in Covina and Ralph has turned fourteen. The children’s summer visits to Colorado have become a family ritual. Eventually, Mrs. Fawcett arranges for them to spend a full year at the ranch, while she takes Leah and Rachel around the world, sells the house, and resettles the family in the East. Each chapter is a great lurch through time, space, or event. Mean-while, the novel’s lonesome heart, its true event and movement, are always brooding in the interstices of its story, in little boredoms and cruelties, and in scraps of inexplicable suffering.

During the children’s first visit to Colorado, a horse breaks its leg in the road and “the men at the Bar K carried the dead horse” to “where the coyotes gathered most often after they had robbed the henhouse, and they poisoned the meat with cyanide.” Then a bird carries the meat to the yard, where Claude’s beloved beagle eats it and dies. Through sudden events like this one, the novel offers a structural vision of growing up as a drastic series of isolated strangenesses and false starts. At the same time, other family rituals that the children loathe recur endlessly, as if cosmically dictated. Throughout the book, Molly and Ralph endure regular gatherings with the sappy, unkind Reverend Follansbee and his wife. (“There was something fat about the way Mr. Follansbee belched,” Molly reflects.) The novel’s drifts and jolts tell the story of Ralph and Molly coming apart, and of their ferocity in the face of their own meagerness and isolation.

The Mountain Lion spends more of its narration close to Ralph than close to Molly, but it’s Molly whom the novel loves best—and whom we love, too. By the end of the book, Ralph and Claude are stalking a mountain lion they’ve glimpsed in the countryside around the ranch, and that they’ve nicknamed Goldilocks. Molly is twelve years old, smart, and “not only ugly” but with “a homemade look, a look of having been put together by an inexperienced hand.” She’s full of poisonous hatred for the people around her, except for her father and Grandpa Kenyon, whom she’s decided she would always forgive no matter what. (Since they’re no longer living, this is both a piece of tenderness and a bitterly safe bet.) Once, Molly pours acid on her hand so that it will burn through her skin. She writes “a short story about a leper colony.”

The hero was a man named Lord Garnsborough who had so wasted away that all that was left of him was one tooth; he and his close friend, Launfal Hottentot, who was all gone but the lobe of his right ear, traveled about together in a glass cage, visiting people in worse conditions than they. An especially pitiful case was that of Malachi Strattonbottle who had nothing left but a small spitcurl of oleaginous hair.

Her pleasures are her writing and a few other projects—first flowers and gardening, then collecting scientific samples of ladybugs she finds in the snow. She has no friends, and after she’s broken with Ralph there’s no living person she can tolerate. Yet “in the course of a week [she plans] to be a salesman for the Book of Knowledge, a grocer, a government walnut inspector, a trolley conductor in Tia Juana.” She’s brave, and she’s interested in the world even as she rejects it.

It’s impossible not to feel singed by the bright burn of Molly’s misanthropy. It’s the source of the novel’s magic. I’ve never read anything that captures the depth of that terrible, familiar feeling the way The Mountain Lion does. Molly’s misanthropy both does and doesn’t feel adolescent; its toxic sizzle doesn’t allow you to assume pleasantly that eventually she’ll outgrow it, maybe in a college literature class or a job in the city. It feels essential, perhaps the necessary cost of sharp observation. It feels like a whirlpool that’s trapped Molly, that’s drowning her—or perhaps it’s that she herself has become a whirlpool of overwhelming suck, noise, froth, and beauty. As I read, I was aware of my proper place in her universe as another object of her disdain; I also winced to recognize the savage kernels of her lonesome hatred in myself. In Molly, Stafford manages to catch the vitality, righteousness, and poison of misanthropy all at once.

Stafford—who was married first to Robert Lowell and then, after they divorced, to A. J. Liebling—published The Mountain Lion in 1947. It was her second novel, coming after the bestselling 1944 Boston Adventure. She published her final novel, The Catherine Wheel, in 1952 and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1970 for her Collected Stories, many of which first appeared in The New Yorker. Throughout her dramatic life she struggled with alcoholism and depression, dying in 1979 at sixty-three, a few years after a debilitating stroke left her with aphasia. Many of the images and landscapes that haunt The Mountain Lion recur in Stafford’s short stories—lippia flowers, the smell of apples, a maid named Fuchsia. This continuity makes it easy to imagine Stafford writing from memories that won’t be shaken.

None of that matters, though, really. What matters is Molly Fawcett. Here’s a story from a letter she writes to her cousin:

The Snake and the File

A snake one day crept into a blake-smiths shop and chaunced to knock against a steel file. This hurt the snake slightly, and, flying into a rage, he at once bit the file as hard as he could. The hard steel file cut the snake mouth, but when he saw the blood he though it was the file that bled, and so he bit it again and again until he had damage his own mouth very badly.

When we try to hurt other people we are much more likely to get hurt ourself.

The Mountain Lion taught me how it feels to be the snake, the steel file, and the misplaced moral all at once.

Mimi Chubb has written for The Threepenny Review since 2005. She currently lives in Austin, Texas.

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