Read Him and Weep

A man of too many words: Mark Moskowitz in 'Stone Reader'

If ever there was a movie I was predisposed to love, it was Mark Moskowitz's Stone Reader, a documentary that takes--perhaps too literally--Cyril Connolly's old quip as its moral: "Whom the gods wish to destroy, they first call promising." On the surface, Moskowitz's film is the story of a virtuous quest for the vanished author of an obscure piece of fiction. That's certainly a tantalizing subject for anyone who ever fell in love with a book only to find that his or her infatuation has been wholly unreciprocated by the rest of the world.

The object of Moskowitz's wild goose chase is a man named Dow Mossman, the author of one novel, The Stones of Summer, that was released in 1972 to small but effusive acclaim, only to disappear without a trace. Mossman's book was, in fact, greeted by an almost too-poignant rave in the New York Times Book Review. Critic John Seelye, barely able to contain his enthusiasm for the novel, writes Mossman's ironic epitaph in the first lathered paragraph:

The Stones of Summer cannot possibly be called a promising first novel for the simple reason that it is such a marvelous achievement that it puts forth much more than mere promise. Fulfillment is perhaps the best word, fulfillment at the first stroke, which is so often the sign of superior talent and which is also a frightening thing, for the author may remain forever awed by the force and witness of his first production. I don't think, however, that this will happen in the present instance. Dow Mossman's novel is a whole river of words fed by a torrential imagination and such a source is not likely to stop flowing.

But of course, Mossman's river of words did stop flowing, and as to whether the author was "forever awed by the force and witness of his first production," we'll never really know. We will know, however, that Moskowitz was more than willing to assume that burden for him. And the filmmaker's exuberance, his eagerness to wallow in the mystery for as long as possible, is precisely what makes Stone Reader such a colossal disappointment.

There are a lot of problems with the film, and every one of them starts with Moskowitz, who's clearly more interested in talking about the apparent tragedy of Mossman's disappearance than in getting to the bottom of it. (He'll appear in person at U Film Society on Friday, when he'll presumably talk about it further.) For a guy who has made a handsome living in one of the most cynical of mediums--the director is a successful maker of political campaign advertisements for television, and Stone Reader is his first feature film--Moskowitz comes across as a remarkably naïve character. He's also a terrible detective, a bumbler who enjoys talking about forgotten books and authors so much that he loses sight of his quest again and again. At 128 minutes, the film is much too long. And by the end, when, in one of the most frustrating anticlimaxes in recent memory, Moskowitz actually tracks Mossman down, it has become plenty clear that any reasonably competent person could have found the man in a single day.

Moskowitz, though, takes his sweet time, and spends the first two-thirds of the film jawing about books with literary heavyweights who have never even heard of Mossman's novel. Virtually every one of these people, however, tells Moskowitz that there's really nothing unique about one-book careers; the history of literature, someone observes, is full of "blind alleys, dead ends, and dead people." Unfortunately, this information fails to dispel the filmmaker of his wholly romantic notions. "I can't believe a guy could write a book this good and just disappear," Moskowitz intones in one of the movie's endless, monotonous voiceovers, many of them accompanied by what appears to be stock footage left over from his old political commercials. (There are long, idyllic shots of autumn foliage and butterflies cavorting in flower gardens, of country roads and meandering children, none of which serves any purpose other than to illustrate--in the most heavy-handed fashion imaginable--the passing of time and the essential mysteries of obscurity. And I for one am not convinced that these mysteries are essential anyway.)

Stone Reader's fatal flaw--there are a number of them, actually--is that Moskowitz never deigns to give us anything resembling a decent description of the book and the impact it had on him. I have no idea, based on this film, what the book is about or whether it's something I'd be interested in reading. Moskowitz spends the first half of the movie snatching up every copy of the novel he can find on the Internet and hoarding them. The few friends on whom he actually foists The Stones of Summer are decidedly underwhelmed. And when he does find admirers of the book--such as Carl Brandt, Mossman's former agent, or old friends of the author--their praise usually consists of little beyond, "That was a great book."

Mossman's story is certainly a sad one, if not particularly uncommon, and it's a real shame that the documentarian couldn't do more with what might have been a compelling film. It isn't just that Moskowitz is an insufferable character who can't resist hogging the spotlight in what ought to be Mossman's movie; he's also a manipulative and self-indulgent filmmaker. Stone Reader is full of uneasy reenactments and clumsy encounters, and poor Mossman--whom Moskowitz finds living in the same Cedar Rapids home where he grew up--gets terribly overshadowed in the end. The moment he answers the door to find Moskowitz standing on his porch, the movie cuts away once again to some other old blowhard pontificating about the tragic nature of literary obscurity. Moskowitz eventually finds his way back to Mossman, of course, but we never really get to know the man's story, other than the fact that he suffered a nervous breakdown, disillusionment, and writer's block--a fairly typical tale, in other words--and spent years working as a welder, caring for his elderly mother, and reading Shakespeare. Mossman seems as befuddled as Moskowitz is by his obscurity--if not nearly as troubled. He's an engagingly rattled character, and I would have loved to have seen more of him.

Perhaps the most galling aspect of Stone Reader is the extent to which Moskowitz appears clueless about the machinations of the publishing business that regularly result in the forced obscurity of hundreds of worthy novels. The filmmaker, clearly a busy man, gives plenty of free publicity in his movie, and is seemingly oblivious to the irony implicit in his steady patronage of one of the very behemoths that'll help ensure the quick and premature deaths of many other books like The Stones of Summer. In a final bit of ironic good news/bad news for the beleaguered author, Mossman's novel--the original paperback version of which is currently selling for $450 on the Internet--is slated to be reissued in the fall by the publishing arm of Barnes and Noble. And for that, at least, Dow Mossman can thank Mark Moskowitz.

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