The Library of America’s edition of the complete novels of Jean Stafford presents a nice collection of satirical works, including the well known Boston Adventure but also two shorter and just as interesting pieces, The Mountain Lion and The Catherine Wheel. Over time The Mountain Lion has gained its share of fame, although the third work is still comparatively forgotten. It is these latter two stories that provide an interesting and entertaining reading experience together, serving as thematic companion pieces.
One of the more interesting aspects of having these two shorter works collected together is that the reader finds it much easier to spot the similarities in plot, theme, and other elements. The stories deal with upper-class families who are not as well off as they think they are, and with each respective group’s prejudices. In particular, class-related and race-related terms come up often, with a certain slur starting with an “n” and “white trash” being tossed back and forth by angry people of the opposite groups respectively.
The Catherine Wheel and The Mountain Lion both have titles anticipating climactic moments in the texts, with key items relating to the climaxes described. A mountain lion is a fairly well-known animal even today, however a Catherine wheel is somewhat more obscure term, more familiar as “pinwheel”, a type of firework which burns bright while also causing its lights to spin in a rapid circle. The effect is beautiful but it is, like any firework, dangerous. Benign versus dangerous objects play a major role in the stories’ respective finales, although neither one is the primary destructive force.
Another interesting parallel between the two works is quasi-incestuous desire. In The Mountain Lion the siblings the book focuses on have an unhealthy obsession with one another, leading to self harm and violence, but prior to that seem convinced that they will marry one another and rather like that idea. Indeed, when anyone or anything comes between them, even different interests, it builds upon this. Uncle Claude is a major wedge between the pair, and his outdoors oriented ways lends weight to the idea that the two could grow apart, adding further resentment still. Meanwhile in The Catherine Wheel Katherine and her nephew Andrew have an obsessive relationship reinforced by the boy’s strong physical resemblance to his father, a man who Katherine had a great romantic and sexual interest in. Indeed, a moment comes in the book where him wearing him father’s old clothes startles the woman, and another in which she finds the boy sleeping and spends an uncomfortable amount of time looking him over.
Both stories feature the inability of adults to understand children, although the fact that Stafford’s children are essentially slightly smaller adults much of the time makes this stranger than it would in another story. Still, given the satirical nature of Jean Stafford’s work, it is very likely that this dichotomy was intentional. Further, there is a fair amount of depiction of self-harm in The Mountain Lion, which may trouble some readers, although it is not depicted in a positive way. This and the incestuous subtexts might bother some readers.
A collection such as this will be thought frequently as the best way to read The Boston Adventure, or The Mountain Lion. Thanks to the meticulous attention put into Library of America volumes, this is true enough. However it ignores the many positive aspects of the other stories, as well as their relationship to one another. If one enjoys the works of Jean Stafford than this volume is a must-have, including a wealth of personal information as well as detailed textual analysis. If one is interested in American social commentary and class-based works, this volume is similarly easy to recommend. The satire is at times biting, switching between subtle and obvious, and the characters are often detestable. Yet each work is structured in a careful deliberate way which cannot fail to provoke thought in the engaged reader. One wonders if Stafford’s short fiction will gain some space in the Library of America catalogue as well.
(Library of America 2019)