What a strange enterprise, making a movie about reading a book. It's the kind of paradox philosophy students chew over at 3 o'clock in the morning -- and a prospect any Hollywood producer would flee as fast as his Ferragamos could carry him. But for Mark Moskowitz, a lifelong bibliophile re-examining his values at midlife, that enterprise turned into a labor of love, a wild obsession, and, in the end, the thing that could soon revive the reputation (if not the career) of a gifted novelist who's been hiding under a rock for three decades.
For documentarian Moskowitz, a 48-year-old Philadelphian who always wanted to write fiction himself but wound up producing campaign spots for Democratic political candidates, the emotional trigger for his film Stone Reader was an obscure 1972 novel, The Stones of Summer, by a forgotten writer named Dow Mossman. When he was 18, Moskowitz explains, he read a rave review of the book in the New York Times. He bought the paperback. But it wasn't until 1998 that an older, more mature Moskowitz actually read Mossman's difficult, 552-page novel. It was a thunderbolt. Like the pivotal, life-changing experiences in any life, reading Stones transformed the reader, driving him first to snatch up every rare copy he could find on the Internet, then propelling him into a two-year search for the work's lost author. In the process, he learned some things about himself, too.
Does the whole idea sound a little precious and a touch insular? Maybe it is. But in the course of his travels -- and over the 128-minute length of his film -- this dogged seeker expands his quest in ways so valuable he could scarcely have imagined them at the start. Stone Reader (nice pun, isn't it?) is not just a literary detective story or the chronicle of one man's worried self-appraisal. In time, it also reheats the fevers of the freewheeling, icon-smashing 1960s, when the obsessive Mossman slaved over every syllable of his radical prose -- and it vividly recalls the old rapture of literature itself. In this visual-digital age, Moskowitz reminds us, careful, engaged readers are most often regarded as quaint crackpots (if anyone thinks about them at all), and book publishing has, for the most part, degenerated into a low scramble for quick profit by giant conglomerates.
Among the film's several laments for the written word, novelist Frank Conroy's may be the most straightforward. "In this culture," he says, "it's so difficult to do serious work ... and keep body and soul together." Of course, George Orwell was saying that back in 1946. Decades earlier, William Faulkner had to shovel coal for a living.
Meanwhile, what befell the author of The Stones of Summer? Did the poor guy drop acid and slip down a rabbit hole? Drown at Big Sur? Take a job selling shoes in Chicago? Why did he never write another book?
For most of the way, we share such questions with the filmmaker while the people who might lead him to Mossman lead us into some interesting byways. Assorted teachers and writers speculate about the demons that haunt the creative mind. Literary critic Leslie Fiedler talks about his long fascination with one-book writers like Ralph Ellison and Henry Roth (whose Call It Sleep was revived in the '60s) and recluses like J.D. Salinger. Editors discuss the mysteries and accidents of literary success. "It's a crapshoot, publishing," says Robert Gottlieb, who oversaw the birth of Joseph Heller's Catch-22. Unearthed in Manhattan, Mossman's ex-agent sadly shakes his head at the thought of brilliance extinguished. In Iowa, the young writer's former mentor discusses the fiery originality of Mossman's work -- and his own taste for the dog track.
Such stuff will most appeal to an endangered species -- the devotee of literary fiction -- but anyone who gives a damn about the state of popular culture and the future of language will want to take heed. In his passion for serious writing, Moskowitz raises all kinds of nagging questions about the social contract and the level of our discourse.
So then, what about the elusive Mr. Mossman? For the moment, let's content ourselves with the fact that the filmmaker does track him down and preserve the rest of the drama for those who see the film. But you should know this: In the end, Stone Reader gives us an old-fashioned romantic's view of writers and their craft -- complete with the hint of a happy ending. The final credits tell us that The Stones of Summer remains out of print. But a recent phone conversation with the filmmaker reveals how things have changed since the movie's initial February release. Dow Mossman is now a semi-hot topic for cultural buzzmeisters. On March 8, he appeared on the Today show. By summer, the driven detective who rediscovered him says, his book could re-emerge in a new edition. Most encouraging of all, Mossman, now 60, may be writing fiction again. For Moskowitz, these latest turns of plot are pure pleasure. He never grew into a novelist, the filmmaker acknowledges, but he's become the co-author of a pretty good story about art and survival.
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