That Evil Yellow Light: On Jean Stafford’s “The Mountain Lion”

DESPITE HAVING BEEN reprinted by New York Review Books Classics, Jean Stafford’s 1947 novel The Mountain Lion still lurks at the edges of 20th-century fiction, a barely acknowledged, stone-cold classic hiding in plain sight. In its furtiveness, at least vis-à-vis the canon, Stafford’s novel resembles its self-loathing writer-heroine, Molly Fawcett, who at one point, “according to her custom, [was] lurking unseen in the room.” Perhaps the novel remains “unseen” by so many readers because, like all classics, it bodies forth danger. The Mountain Lion‘s particular danger is that of The Forbidden, especially — for the “plot,” at least — the forbiddenness of adolescent sexuality and incestuous desire.

But The Forbidden is a vast category, which finds representation early on in an imaginary figure whom siblings Ralph and Molly Fawcett — nerdy descendants of Maggie and Tom Tulliver from George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss — encounter on their way home from school, as it hides in a much-feared arroyo:

All mystery and evil came from the Wash. Those smooth colored stones they gathered were really stolen jewels and the thief was a coal-black Skalawag who slept in the daytime in Mr. Vogelman’s cornbin but kept watch at night. They did not venture down into the Wash when they had nosebleeds because the Skalawag could smell blood, no matter how far away he was, and he would get up and come legging it after them.

The rapacious, bloodthirsty, racially charged Skalawag’s presence haunts the Fawcett siblings’ growing up, following them back and forth between Covina, California, where they live most of the year with their frighteningly genteel mother and older sisters, and Colorado, where they spend summers on their un-rarefied step-uncle Claude’s mountain ranch. The Forbidden does not allow opposites — such as Connecticut and Colorado, adult and child, brother and sister, Grandfather Bonney and Grandpa Kenyon (the novel’s archetypes of masculinity), and male and female — to coexist. The novel ends with an act of bloodletting that will rattle even the most hardened reader but that nevertheless seems the utterly inevitable outcome of the Skalawag having been let loose in a world of opposites.

Near the end the novel, just before those opposites collide, 14-year-old Ralph goes off to sulk by a beaver dam: “Was there anything in the world, he wondered, that did not make you think of something else?” Indeed, the novel so teems with occult resemblances between the natural and artificial worlds, between people and animals, between the mythical and the everyday, that its world seems to be swathed in what the narrator calls that “light lying on the meadows just at dawn and then again just before dark [which] was a singular ominous yellow, giving to trees and to animals a submarine remoteness and ambiguity of outline.” (Ralph later thinks of it as “that evil yellow light.”) The traces of inchoateness that haunt The Mountain Lion remind me of this more famous passage in To the Lighthouse: “Beneath it is all dark, it is all spreading, it is unfathomably deep; but now and again we rise to the surface and that is what you see us by.” Here, Virginia Woolf writes about the individual’s perpetual immersion in the collective unconscious, which is broken only by occasional forays to the “surface” of individual identity, that necessary fiction. But surely Stafford’s and Woolf’s language of remoteness, ambiguity, unfathomability, and depth applies not only to the quality of light and to the human psyche but also to the work of art itself, or, more precisely, to the primal, primordial vastness out of which the most electrifying works of art arise and whose traces haunt the “surface” elements of, say, setting or plot.

The Mountain Lion dwells even closer to that vastness because its protagonists, Ralph and Molly — 10 and eight, respectively, when the story commences — are children, and particularly perceptive children at that. “Heat lightning for the sky is the same thing as scarlet fever for us,” young Ralph calls out to his sister when both lie sick abed, anticipating his more sophisticated, later question about resemblances by the beaver dam. The children are sensitive to the point of grotesqueness, especially in their widowed mother’s eyes: “They were so self-conscious that they could not sit on a chair without looking as if they perched on a precarious cliff, and if they were suddenly addressed by a strange elder, they swallowed in the middle of their words and tears came to their eyes, steaming their glasses.” When, midway through the novel, Molly snarls, “I haven’t got a home,” she’s correct in a literal sense — her mother has decided to sell the family’s California homestead and leave her and Ralph in Claude’s care for a year while she takes the children’s older, more favored sisters, on a world tour — but also in a figurative one. There is no place for such unconventional children as Ralph and Molly Fawcett in early 1930s America, or at least Stafford’s vision of that America. (Born in 1915, Stafford was a bit older than Ralph.)

Although The Mountain Lion belongs among the great novels of childhood, such a designation’s boringly generic, so I will call it one of the most unforgettable depictions of the disgust that children can feel for adults — and subsequently, inevitably, for themselves as they approach adulthood during adolescence. Not only do Ralph and Molly fear being devoured by the Skalawag, but they also fear becoming it. Molly remembers the minister’s wife, Mrs. Follansbee, on a trip to the sea: “Her thin, knock-kneed legs were traced with thickened varicose veins; her stomach was soft and pendulous and made Molly think of a cake that had run over the side of the pan.” Is it any wonder that Stafford’s narrator describes Molly’s post-bath ritual like this: “she dried herself and bound her stomach with a piece of outing flannel. She wrapped it so hard and pinned it so tight that it gave her a pain” — anything to prevent the cake from running over. The novel bleakly strands Ralph and Molly in this state of disgust and self-disgust. Stafford so recklessly violates the bildungsroman’s conventions that her novel — to quote Kathryn Davis’s afterword to the NYRB Classics edition — becomes “a story about the impossibility of growing up and the impossibility of remaining a child.”

Davis emphasizes Stafford’s debt to Henry James and Mark Twain, but I find her equally indebted to Elizabeth Gaskell and Woolf, especially in her deployment of point of view. (Stafford’s Molly may have been named after Molly Gibson, the heroine of Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters.) From Gaskell, Stafford learned free indirect discourse: that is, a third-person narrator whose verbal mannerisms evoke the voice — sometimes momentarily, sometimes for extended passages — of one or more of the novel’s characters. These shifts in tone become more pronounced as Ralph and Molly grow increasingly, hostilely, estranged from each other, but there are moments — and this is where Stafford learned from Woolf and other modernists — when specific characters’ voices go farther and usurp the narrative voice altogether. “The noise of the gale had the tongue of Hades in it” doesn’t sound like omniscient narration — it sounds just like rough-hewn, cantankerous Grandpa Kenyon. A few pages later, Kenyon’s stepdaughter, Mrs. Fawcett, takes over the narrative voice: “she did not want the dirty, tippling old roughneck to think he was not welcome.” “Roughneck” is clearly Mrs. Fawcett’s word for her stepfather. In one tour-de-force passage early on, the narrative voice inhabits Ralph’s consciousness, when suddenly Mrs. Fawcett’s voice takes over — because Ralph can’t get his mother’s voice out of his head.

At times, Stafford’s narrative voice turns heartbreakingly aphoristic: “Undernourished dogs meandered about the streets looking for food in the ruts they already knew by heart.” Ralph and Molly observe these dogs as they take the rickety train to Uncle Claude’s the first summer they spend there. The sentence’s jewel, of course, is “ruts they already knew by heart,” which sounds like an age-old adage, a comic adage at that. But there’s an absurdity and even ennui in knowing the ruts by heart: the dogs have become so familiar with their environment there’s nothing left to discover; yet their hunger drives them to revisit familiar territory. The verb “meanders” goes along with that cosmic boredom. Since the novel’s third-person narrator almost always inhabits one or more of its characters’ consciousness, we can assume that the thought belongs to Ralph and Molly, two children, who suddenly realize that lack and stultifying sameness exist in the Wild West of Colorado just as much as in California’s genteel corners. That seemingly thrown-off sentence captures one of the novel’s key preoccupations: realms like adulthood and the American West, which promise freedom, instead offer only further stultification.

Stafford’s great creation, arch-misanthrope Molly Fawcett — who drowns a live mouse in a bottle of water for fun, who pointedly uses the “n-word” to insult Uncle Claude’s African-American cook, and who writes identical begging-letters to Henry Ford and President Hoover (“I wonder if you have any typewriters that you don’t need. I am very needful of one myself”) — stands in utter defiance of that stultification even as it engulfs her. Molly’s sense of her own diminishment comes out in her stories, like this one, summarized near the novel’s end:

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.

Like The Mountain Lion itself, Molly’s vastly developed and deeply humorous sense of the grotesque is sui generis. Perhaps the uncompromising visions of Molly and her creator affronted late 1940s America and thus sent the novel ricocheting to the margins of literary history. More than 70 years later, it’s up to 21st-century readers to approach those margins and meet The Mountain Lion, the most bracing and sorrowful re-immersion into childhood’s waters that I ever hope to encounter. You ignore this novel, like the Skalawag, at your own peril.

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Eric Gudas is the author of Best Western and Other Poems (Silverfish Review Press, 2010). His work has appeared in The American Poetry Review, The Iowa Review, Poetry Flash, Raritan, and elsewhere. For more information, visit ericgudas.com.

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