Thursday, August 19, 2010

NYRB Challenge #40: The Mountain Lion Roars. . .

Having read and reviewed books by Robert Lowell's second and third wives (Elizabeth Hardwick and Caroline Blackwood respectively), it would have seemed bad manners to ignore his first, Jean Stafford. And I think she was the most talented of the three.
The Mountain Lion is a rather strange and awkward coming-of-age novel, full of subtle and uncomfortable tensions between generations and siblings. Ralph Fawcett and his younger sister Molly are rebellious allies against their widowed mother, two older sisters, and everything they represent - a world based on propriety and society's moral values, and one in which almost anything noisy, fun, or actively done outdoors is frowned upon. Two worlds are represented by two grandfathers - the dead, respectable Grandfather Bonney, whose portrait and memory are prominently alive in the household, and gruff, rugged Grandfather Kenyon, Mrs. Fawcett's step-father, who visits them annually and holds a certain mystique for Ralph and Molly, if only because their mother dislikes him so much. When he suddenly dies the first day of his visit, the children meet his son, Uncle Claude,  who invites them to visit his ranch in Colorado. They ride horses for the first time, hike in the mountains and Ralph learns to shoot.  When their mother and sisters embark on a year long trip around the world, Ralph and Molly move in with their uncle. The title of the novel refers to the elusive animal that Ralph and Claude glimpse from time to time in the mountains; it becomes a competitive obsession to kill it. (This novel would actually make an interesting read alongside Hemingway's The Snows of Kilimanjaro).

It is very much a novel of diametrics. Characters and landscapes take on deeper hues against the narrative interplay with their opposites. Kathryn Davis who contributes a very good afterword, even calls the prose part Henry James and part Mark Twain. Molly is the imaginative, fearless one who wants to be a writer, who observes the world's hypocrisies and calls people to account.  Ralph is all coiled energy, revelling and sometimes reviling, his changing physicality and emerging notions of masculinity and sexuality. The sibling relationship is by turns complicit, petulant, and dangerous. It's also one of the most complicated and compelling ones I've ever encountered in fiction. This could also be a great YA crossover book for a good teen reader.

Just a note - this edition starts with an author's introduction written many years after the book's publication, in which Stafford does reveal the book's ending, so avoid it if you don't want spoilers (and it's a fairly crucial spoiler).

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