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Lost & Found: Anna Keesey on Jean Stafford

Anna Keesey brings us to The Mountain Lion, Jean Stafford’s brutal tale of childhood’s end on a Colorado ranch, in today’s Lost & Found from our vault.  Since this piece first ran in 2002, the novel has been reissued by New York Review Books.

At the end of her life Jean Stafford looked like a turtle. It’s probably rude to point that out, but since I myself am going to be the spit-and-image of an Afghan hound and Stafford, if she’d ever had the chance, would have been happy to say so, I need not shrink. Shell-backed, wrinkled, roguish, wary, Stafford sat around East Hampton in those director’s chairs that everyone had in the seventies, cranking up the dial on her oxygen tank, savaging the Pentagon and the human potential movement and everybody else who, then and now, deserved it, with a wit no bourbon could pacify.  That old broad in the striped socks and the Coca-Cola sweatshirt was writing expertly for magazines but, as a novelist, was coasting on the rep she’d earned two-no, three decades before, and never getting very far with the masterwork that was supposed to be called The Parliament of Women. She’d written many short stories and three novels, but after the last one, The Catherine Wheel, published when she was only thirty-six, she never finished another, making the acid-tongued beauty from Boulder, Colorado, a preeminent member of that group of American writers who never quite got their shit together.

That’s one way to describe her. There are others. She whom Robert Lowell pursued, nearly killed with his drunk driving, still managed to marry, and then dumped for a passing fancy called Gertrude. She whose father was a writer of hack westerns. She of the nervous breakdowns, she of the hidden whisky. Best-selling literary ingénue, pet of the New Yorker, winner of the 1970 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Beloved moll of legendary journalist A.J. Liebling. She who pissed off her editors and fired her agent. Who lost her dear brother. Who lost the power of speech. Who checked out early, at the age of sixty-three. Whose tombstone bears the engraving of a snowflake.

For me, though, she’s only one thing: the author of The Mountain Lion.

*   *   *

She wrote it in 1945 and it was published in 1947. The only edition in print [at the time of this writing in 2002] is from the University of Texas Press, bearing on its cover a poignantly dated drawing of a mountain lion’s head, the kind of drawing one would copy from an encouraging (“Can you draw Simba?”) advertisement in a magazine. The cat head bears the same relationship to the novel as a drawing of a lonely little duck on a Central Park Pond would to The Catcher in the Rye.

The Mountain Lion presents the childhood and adolescence of Ralph and Molly Fawcett, intelligent and ill-favored children whose father has died and left them to be raised by their fluttery and excessively refined mother. They have black hair and wear eyeglasses and are given to bleeding from their big hard noses, an affliction which at least gets them out of school early and makes them feel they are one up on their pretty older sisters, Leah and Rachel, who are stuck in class “with nothing to do but chew paraffin on the sly.” The children are bookish, self-conscious, and sensitive; Molly, for example, remembers with horror a time at the beach when a seagull winked at her and she saw that its lower rather than upper eyelid was all that moved. Their mother and sisters court the wrong kind of people, according to Ralph and Molly, people who are always clean, who forswear linoleum and coarseness, and who insist on the primacy of Tennyson in a gentleman’s library. Molly and Ralph much prefer their stepgrandfather, the rough and bearded Mr. Kenyon, and when he dies, his son, their laconic uncle Claude. Their mother, protesting but secretly grateful, allows the children to spend summers at Uncle Claude’s ranch in Colorado, as geographically and culturally distant from the Fawcett home in southern California as Munchinland from Kansas. They love the ranch, as they should, but what it brings forth in them will destroy them both.

The pungent style of The Mountain Lion combines icy observation with tones of irony and tenderness. Or rather, the tenderness is inherent in the observation, in the minute attention Stafford pays to the characters’ idiosyncratic lexicons, behaviors, fears, enthusiasms, and artifacts. Faithfully rendered are the jokes that make Ralph and Molly weep with laughter but fail to amuse anybody else, and also Molly’s juvenilia, including her poem “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?

At home, Molly and Ralph are allies, rejecting their mother’s sherry-and-silk world, but at the ranch they begin to diverge. Ralph learns to ride a horse and to get along without glasses; he also, significantly, learns to shoot. He begins to have feelings he distrusts and abhors but still enjoys. He remarks that a woman on a train with a number of children wears no wedding ring; he imagines kissing the little vein in his sister Leah’s temple. And the masculine world of Uncle Claude, with its horses and bulls, its guns and fugitive mountain lions, drags him ever further from Molly:

He looked at his weedy sister with dislike as she crouched on her heels, plucking the lilies all around her, and when she looked up at him, her large humble eyes fondling his face with lonely love, he wanted to cry out with despair because hers was really the only love he had and he found it nothing but a burden an a tribulation.

Indeed, Molly, at twelve, resists any suggestion of the world of sexuality that lies just around the bend for her and Ralph. When Ralph, now fourteen, tells her with simple wonder about the birth of a calf that he has just witnessed, she panics, plugs her ears, and calls him a dirty liar. It’s not just ordinary middle-schooler prudery Molly feels. It’s a threat to her being, a fear of the corruption of womanhood that amounts to a phobia. She wears a bathing suit in the bathtub, she is desperately afraid of snakes, she thinks of herself “as a long wooden box with a mind inside.” And, of course, she believes she will marry Ralph, who she can love without fear of taint or subjugation. Stafford might be accused of going a little heavy on the Freud if Molly weren’t so achingly real; it’s not just that it’s tough, in the 1940s, to be a smart girl who’s ugly: it’s literally impossible. The Mountain Lion insists that the world does not allow for the survival of such a person as Molly Fawcett. She gets taller and taller, but no more feminine, only more and more grotesque. There is no place for her to go, and no one for her to become, and everyone around her knows it. And the world, following the efficient and shocking ethics of the ranch, uses the one person who loves her as the instrument of her destruction. For the brutality and correctness of its ending, I think only Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian competes with The Mountain Lion.

It’s a good test of a writer whether she can write of children who are not Raggedy Anns and Andys but human beings full of innocence, error, embarrassment, and malice who happen temporarily to be children. In England Rebecca West invented some children like this, as did Richard Hughes. But among American literary children, Ralph and Molly have peers only in Holden Caulfield, Scout and Jem Finch, and Huckleberry Finn. That Molly Fawcett is forgotten is a crime against and excellent writer, but to that excellent writer’s credit, it’s an even greater crime against Molly.

I think about the book Stafford never wrote, The Parliament of Women. After the stroke that made her aphasic, her friend and editor Robert Giroux helped her to pore over the scraps and notes she was keeping on the novel and construct a short story, “An Influx of Poets,” which was published in 1978 and became one of her most famous, indicting the destructiveness and traitorousness of men like her ex-husband Lowell. But the rest of the novel never grew. I think about Molly Fawcett, who never grew, either. And uncharacteristically, for a sentimental and optimistic Afghan hound like myself, I wonder if the reason Stafford couldn’t write her book is this: that there is no parliament of women, and there never will be.

Anna Keesey’sshort stories have appeared in Grand Street, Double-Take, and ZZYZVA, among other journals, and in Best American Short Stories. Her novel Little Century is coming out from Farrar, Straus & Giroux in May.  She teaches creative writing at Linfield College  in McMinnville, Oregon.

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