- The Washington Times - Friday, May 9, 2003

“You’re way past an ideal reader.” This acknowledgement, which qualifies as a truer-words-were-never-spoken gem, occurs during the blissful closing episodes of the documentary feature “Stone Reader,” booked exclusively at the Avalon. The speaker is Dow Mossman, a long-lost author discovered in middle-aged seclusion in his hometown, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, by filmmaker Mark Moskowitz.

Mr. Moskowitz’s curiosity about the one novel Mr. Mossman published 30 years ago, “The Stones of Summer,” resulted in the quixotic but successful odyssey summarized in the film. It’s a kind of Stanley-finds-Livingstone saga for bibliophiles.

The object of the compliment, Mr. Moskowitz, identifies himself as an avid but also capricious reader in the early going. A novice to features, he has made a living for more than 20 years as a nontheatrical film producer specializing in promotional spots and campaign propaganda for political candidates.

Belatedly, he discovered an appreciation for the Mossman novel, published in 1972 by Bobbs-Merrill. It had caught his attention at the time, thanks to a laudatory but also cautionary review in the New York Times by John Seelye, a member of the English faculty at the University of California at Berkeley and a frequent, diverting contributor to literary periodicals.

As a teenage consumer of serious contemporary fiction, Mr. Moskowitz stalled at about page 20 of “The Stones of Summer,” which he expected to be right up his alley. In 1998, he took the copy down from his bookshelves and gave it a second try. The impact he had anticipated years earlier finally materialized.

While making up for lost time, he resolved to find out as much as he could about the book and the author. Early inquiries at the library and on the Internet fail to provide illumination, although Mr. Moskowitz did secure a fax of the original Seelye review after locating it on microfilm.

Evidently moonlighting between day jobs, the filmmaker invites us to monitor conversations with selected literary professionals who may or may not be able to clear up the Dow Mossman mystery. “Stones” appears to have been his only published book. Swings through the East (Mr. Moskowitz lives in the Philadelphia area) bring him to the late literary critic Leslie Fiedler in Buffalo, N.Y.; Mr. Seelye in Eastport, Maine; and the former editor and publisher Robert Gottlieb, a fixture at Simon & Schuster and then at Knopf for decades, in Manhattan.

Only Mr. Seelye recalls the book, for obvious reasons. Both title and author draw a blank with Mr. Fiedler and Mr. Gottlieb, who contributes an amusing observation: “There’s no law that says you have to write more than one book.”

Locating Mr. Mossman seems incidental to the drift of these early conversations, which dwell on the lore and legend of first novels and the frustrations of a literary vocation. Mr. Moskowitz also encourages discussion of changes in the publishing business over the past generation, prompting a consensus that the changes have been discouraging for serious fiction.

Eventually, Mr. Moskowitz embarks for Iowa City. It’s a logical destination. Mr. Mossman began his book while enrolled in the celebrated Writers’ Workshop of the University of Iowa. He dedicated the novel to William Cotter Murray, a teacher and mentor who remains as a senior faculty member. The director of the workshop, novelist Frank Conroy, is also a coveted subject for the Moskowitz survey because he weathered a long fallow period between first and second novels.

Once Mr. Moskowitz is in Iowa, the search elevates from absorbing to soul-satisfying. Mr. Conroy contributes a tip about holdings in the special-collections department of the library that leads to the discovery of boxes of Mossman manuscript material. The meeting with Mr. Murray kind of bakes the cake and puts the icing on as well. He is the first subject who brings up the name of Dow Mossman without being prompted by the filmmaker. He also knows where Mr. Mossman is and knows his phone number.

Fortunately, the jubilant stirrings are justified by the climactic encounters with Mr. Mossman, who sounds a little like Bill Paxton and looks like a fiftysomething Wilford Brimley. While being briefed about his disappearance from the ranks of promising young authors, we discover an endearing survivor and share the filmmaker’s gratification at having rescued this wayward but distinctive and sociable voice from public oblivion.

Despite a self-evident obsession with words, Mr. Mossman has the common touch. Showing Mr. Moskowitz around the place, he quips, “Welcome to the House of Usher.” As a matter of fact, the House of Mossman teems with relics, notably boxes stuffed with old manuscripts and correspondence. Some of the flotsam reflects his working life since retiring from the literary struggle: “Want an old welding helmet?” he asks.

“Stone Reader” suggests that the humorous potential in real life far exceeds the capacity of formulaic jokes and situations to sneak up on anything fresh and authentic. Mr. Moskowitz has lucked into better suspense devices and showdowns than most humorists are able to invent. Moreover, a different sort of pleasure emerges from sharing his good fortune.

The movie will have its audience at a certain disadvantage until Mr. Mossman’s book is reissued this fall. One can’t be certain if the filmmaker’s admiration is completely justified, and future readings will be colored by moviegoing affection for both Mark Stanley and Dow Livingstone.

Mr. Moskowitz sandbags certain participants, notably the literary agent Carl Brandt. In a phone conversation, he apologizes for leaving the impression with some viewers that Mr. Brandt was meant to be the heavy of the chronicle. On the contrary, he affirms that Mr. Mossman was represented honorably by Mr. Brandt, who made numerous efforts to encourage and sustain his writing career in the early 1970s. Thanks for the clarification. “Stone Reader” isn’t the sort of movie that should be taking cheap shots at anyone.


TITLE: “Stone Reader”

RATING: No MPAA rating (Adult subject matter — occasional profanity but no objectionable depiction)

CREDITS: Written, produced and directed by Mark Moskowitz. Photography by Joseph Vandergast, Jeffrey Confer and Mr. Moskowitz. Editing by Mr. Moskowitz and Kathleen Soulliere. Music by Michael Mandrell

RUNNING TIME: 128 minutes


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