Film Reviews: Wednesday, May 8, 2003
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
The Book of Dow

A search for a vanished writer concerns the exhilarating Stone Reader.

By KRISTIAN LIN

Mark Moskowitz, the director of the fantastic new documentary Stone Reader, doesn’t strike you as the type who would embark on a crazy quest. Balding, mustachioed, and pushing 50, he has an easygoing temperament and a quick smile. He also has a wife, small children, a house that’s being remodeled, and a business filming tv spots for political campaigns. He shows us his small, tastefully chosen library (the Czech master of detective fiction Josef Skvorecky is there — I thought I was the only one who read him), but he wears his reading lightly.

That is, except when it comes to one book in particular. In 1972, as a young undergraduate, Moskowitz bought a paperback copy of a novel called The Stones of Summer by one Dow Mossman. He acquired it after reading a glowing write-up in The New York Times Book Review, but he couldn’t stick with it. Twenty-six years later, he finally read it through and was blown away. He then searched for other books by Mossman and saw that not only had the author never written anything else, but he had apparently disappeared without a trace.

The movie follows the filmmaker as he crisscrosses the country seeking an author known only to his 19-year-old self. The company that published the book is long since defunct. His internet searches come up empty; he can’t find the writer or anyone else who has read the book. He asks the most distinguished names in publishing and literary criticism, and no one has heard of The Stones of Summer. He tracks down the author’s classmates from the University of Iowa, and some of them can’t even remember him. The questions come to obsess the filmmaker and us: Where is Dow Mossman? And why did he stop writing?

Moskowitz’s workmanlike filmmaking is flavored by his wry sense of humor, which sometimes comments on his cinematic style. (While showing us scenic views outside his Pennsylvania home, he says in voice-over, “A year has passed and nothing has happened. All I can think to do is shoot pretty pictures on my leftover film.”) Laden with interviews, his documentary could easily have degenerated into a “talking heads” piece, but the filmmaker’s need to find out what became of Dow Mossman gives this film its urgency and momentum.

His quest runs into its share of blind alleys, but fascinating people guide him there and share their opinions on the difficulties of writing novels for a living and the reasons that many authors give up after producing only one book. The croaky voice and frail demeanor of the great literary critic Leslie Fiedler can’t hide the glint in his eyes, as he reveals that his proudest achievement was discovering a hitherto-unknown book (Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep) and propelling it to best-sellerdom years after its release. John Seelye, the reviewer whose rave in The New York Times Book Review started the journey, turns out to be an avuncular old man whose vigor and keenness of mind would do someone half his age proud. Legendary book editor Robert Gottlieb, ruminating on authors and the industry, speaks in sentences that unfurl more majestically than most people’s written prose, including mine.

Along with its vague title, one of the movie’s few flaws is that it doesn’t give enough of a sense of what qualities in The Stones of Summer appealed to the filmmaker besides the mysterious circumstances surrounding it. The book is compared to Kerouac and the Mexican passages of Under the Volcano, but you’d be hard-pressed to give an outline of its plot after seeing this film. Nor, despite one excerpt that’s read aloud, do we get much of its prose style. I offer up the book’s deeply imagistic and slightly out-of-control opening sentences (which we see fleetingly on the screen) as a sample: “When August came, thick as a dream of falling timbers, Dawes Williams and his mother would pick Simpson up at his office, and then they would all drive west, all evening, the sun dying before them like the insides of a stone melon, halving with blood. August was always an endless day, he felt, white as wood, slow as light. Dawes shifted about in his seat, uncomfortable, watching the land slide past.”

We do, however, find out what became of Dow Mossman. In a plot twist that only a shameless Hollywood hack would dare to imagine, a crucial break comes from a very old man who knows nothing about the search. The revelation hits like a thunderbolt, and I don’t know how the filmmaker keeps from screaming out loud. In the end, what drives this film is Moskowitz’s passion for literature through meeting well-read people on his quest and talking about it. This film so loves the printed word that its end credits list every book and author mentioned or referred to during its two hours. Pondering the legacy of Joseph Heller (another one-book author), Moskowitz says, “Catch-22 was the first book where I cared as much for the author’s voice as for the story or the characters. I felt like I had found a friend that I’d never find in life.” For anyone who has ever fallen under the sway of a book so completely, the way Stone Reader totally captures that experience makes this an exhilarating piece of work.


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