Magnificent Obsession


By: Dave Hoekstra

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa--There are signs everywhere that it is summer in Cedar Rapids. The smell of sweet grain drifts away from the Quaker Oats factory on the southeast side of town. Families are returning to Veterans Memorial Stadium to watch the Cedar Rapids Kernels play minor league baseball.

And Dow Mossman is on his front porch.

The author hit a home run with his first novel, "The Stones of Summer", a 552-page coming-of-age saga, published in 1972. The New York Times Book Review gave it a superb write-up: "[It is] a whole river of words fed by torrential imagination ... crossing another Rubicon, discovering a new sensibility, a brave new world of consciousness," wrote John Seelye. "This novel has a quality of greatness, that mad Dionysian stream that D.H. Lawrence perceived flowing through certain classics of American literature."

Mossman, who had recently graduated from the acclaimed University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, was justly celebrated for his promise.

And then he and his book vanished.

Like the last day of summer.

In 1972, Mark Moskowitz was 18 and living in Penn Valley, Pa. He bought "The Stones of Summer", read the first 20 pages and didn't pick it up again until 1997. This time, Moskowitz couldn't put it down. Now a commercial filmmaker based in Chester Springs, Pa., he wanted to tell his friends about the book, but couldn't find a copy. He couldn't even find any records of the author.

He became determined, and then totally obsessed: "I'm going to find this guy, and I'm going to ask him what happened to him," Moskowitz recalls. "You know, he published this great book. The guy's a genius, and he just disappeared and never wrote another thing."

His quest culminated in the documentary "Stone Reader," which opens Friday at Facets Cinematheque, 1517 W. Fullerton. The film, which Moskowitz calls a "free-form documentary", won the Audience Award for best feature film and a Special Grand Jury Honor (the festival's top prize) at the 2002 Slamdance Festival in Park City, Utah.

Over the last six months, "Stone Reader" has slowly opened across the country. In April, at Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival, an overwhelmed audience gave Moskowitz and Mossman, who came onstage afterward as a surprise guest, a standing ovation.

Given the movie's singleminded devotion, that reaction wasn't surprising. Over its two-hour plus running time, "Stone Reader" touches on many emotional issues, including the often perilous fate of the artist. As film critic J. Hoberman wrote in the Village Voice: "I've never seen a movie that paid more heartfelt tribute to the power of artistic invention."

At one point in the movie, famed literary critic Leslie Fiedler, whom Moskowitz encounters in his quest, announces: "The act of writing a book is the act of falling in love, with yourself and the audience."

With "Stone Reader," Moskowitz writes his own sort of love letter, as he journeys across 10 states, pursuing leads in search of an elusive author and an interrupted literary career. But as Mossman tells Moskowitz, when he finally finds the object of his obsession: "You're way past an ideal reader--you're in another dimension."

Though "Stone Reader" depicts Mossman as a recluse with writer's block, on this early summer day, he seems to be basking in the attention. Now 60 years old, Mossman sports an 1880s Mark Twain moustache and an air of contentment as he reclines on the front porch of his home, a 70-year-old blue stucco structure, where the heart of "The Stones of Summer" is set, and into which he and his family moved when he was 4 years old.

The front porch provides a window into Mossman's nimble mind. "This is where I live," he says. "I just wish this had a full-sized porch. I'd sleep outside." And he would. Mossman displays a fiercely independent spirit.

A pair of hand-scrawled notebooks reveal that Mossman is writing again. He is working on a new afterword for "The Stones of Summer", long out of print but now resurrected by Barnes & Noble, which will reissue it in September. After suffering from writer's block for decades, he's also working on a new novel, "Engine Town".

As a small radio plays classical music, he's smoking an Anthony & Cleopatra cigar and riffing on topics ranging from reading to motorcycles to ABA basketball.

Like the best creative writers, he drew on his earliest memories for "The Stones of Summer". The autobiographical book begins with Mossman writing from the perspective of an 8-year-old:

"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. It was late, a steady progression of night; the conversations inside the car were like great wood eyes, and driving west over Iowa ... he watched the deserted country porches slide by like lonely pickets guarding the gray, outbreaking storm of sky, like juts of rock."

Explaining his writing style, Mossman observes, "Memory is our highest intellectual function. The other thing that compares to it is our analytical function.

"I wrote most of the book when I was 28, so I was 20 years away from the memories of the farm. In high school, I was 10 years away. Then I had my own problems in the '60s trying to get through graduate school and writing the great American novel at the same time. And there was Vietnam."

Mossman has never used an outline when he writes. "I evolve," he says. "That's why it is so much work."

"The Stones of Summer", a sprawling novel with echoes of Dos Passos, Wolfe and other 20th century masters, comes "from the literal heart of America," wrote acclaimed novelist Thomas Sanchez in a recent essay in the Los Angeles Times. "It proclaims in its pages, 'Build your house on Midwestern rock, and it will collapse with large thunder.' The house of this novel is built from a reinvented American dream, deconstructing the three-act story into a three-ring circus, from grace to madness, from childhood to adulthood, from a family at war to a country losing its peace."

With an accomplishment of this stature, how could its creator just fade into oblivion? That's part of the mystery explored in "Stone Reader" and embodied by Mossman himself.

In a Jack Kerouac-like jag, he wrote the rough draft of "The Stones of Summer" on a '50s model IBM in 1969, his last year in the Iowa Writers Workshop. Some workshop colleagues gave Mossman the name of an editor at Bobbs-Merrill.

That summer, he headed to New York to seal a deal. "I even missed Woodstock," Mossman recalls. "A friend of mine had invited me to ride [to the festival]. But I went to Manhattan instead."

At Bobbs-Merrill, Mossman secured a $4,500 advance, including an option for a second novel. "In 1970, I came back to Cedar Rapids and worked 11 months on "The Stones of Summer". I was living off a Book-of-the-Month Club fellowship and had worked summers and saved some money. I'm pretty good at scufflin'."

Then came the crash, after "The Stones of Summer" appeared with such bright promise and then quickly vanished. "I had from '72 to '78 to write my second novel, basically," Mossman recalls. Instead, battling writer's block and emotional demons, he drifted, relying on his girfriend (whom he later married) for support.

In 1978, "I came back to Cedar Rapids, because by then I was married and figured I was busted out as a writer," he says. "We also came back so I could use my high school diploma to get a job and health insurance, so my wife could have babies."

Mossman was married 25 years. He doesn't want to mention his former wife's name. "I've got two fine boys," he says. "But they aren't talking to me at the moment, and I don't know why. They're 23 and 21."

Mark Twain is one of Mossman's favorite writers. So not surprising, "I named my first kid Finn after Huck Finn. My second son is named Asa after one of my great-grandfathers. I recently found out through a friend that my younger son was a better writer than I ever was at 15."

Back in the early '70s, Mossman was one of the best emerging writers in central Iowa. He became one of the area's best welders. Between 1978 and 1997, he worked as a welder at the Cedar Rapids Highway Equipment Co., getting up at 4 a.m. and starting to weld at 6.

"I used to run 10-hour days," he says. "I'd get off at 3 or 4 in the afternoon. You're pretty clean if you're doing [welding] stainless steel. If you're doing mild steel, it's like taking a bath in gunpowder. By the time I got cleaned up, it would be 5 o'clock. We'd eat and then I'd go read. There was no way I could scribble [Mossman's term for writing].

"I tended to go blank when I welded. It was more of a medieval and monkish thing than the monks ever lived. They didn't have those [welding] hoods. If someone came up, and you were welding, you could flip your hood, and they couldn't even stand there once you turned on [the welding gun]. Part of my asocialness is from that. It was the perfect job for me."

On this particular day, relaxing on his front porch, Mossman recalls the perfect book, Mark Twain's autobiography, published between 1906 and 1907. "It makes you realize what his career was about," he says. "He was the first formal existentialist on the planet."

In "Stone Reader," Mossman announces that Chapter 14 of Twain's autobiography represents "the greatest run in memory" he has ever read.

"I'll stand by that," he says. "I don't think that's even a baroque statement. The whole book is diamond hard. You can tell he was rehearsing that memory. He wrote autobiographically his whole life, but that is his master reflection."

In Chapter 14 of his autobiography, Twain recalls a fancy dinner invitation from the emperor of Germany being passed around the breakfast table of his family's Berlin apartment. His innocent 9-year-old daughter Jean was impressed that Samuel Clemens knew lots of people in high places.

In a passage that must have fascinated the young Mossman, Twain writes, "[Jean] had not been abroad before, and they were new to her--wonders out of dreamland turned into realities."

It underscores the essence of "The Stones of Summer": wonders of a heartland dreamer turned into reality.

Words are to Mossman what harvest is to the farmer. "The novel is the ultimate democracy," he declares. "You can write a novel with an Indian tablet and pencils you find in the street; you get to make it up all on your own. That's the great thing when you're young. That's the great thing at any age."

Like his speech, Mossman's writing displays a natural rhythm. He was an amateur drummer for a spell and his mother would play the music of Austrian-American contralto Ernestine Schumann-Heink around the house when he was a young boy.

"I lost my record and tape collection in my divorce," he says. "It was nothing spectacular, but I listen to music all the time. All the good stuff comes from bluegrass and jazz. I like some jazz. I like Bob James. I had a couple of his tapes. I used to drum to '50s jazz and '60s rock 'n' roll. Drumming makes you listen to music. That's why I wrote a quote-unquote-poetic novel.

"It's not metered rhyme, but all the paragraphs have rhythms. Plus, there's elongated images and recurring words. I knew in my 20s I wasn't a short-story writer. This is the truth; if I could get a wish from an angel, it would be to wake up with 10 short stories before I die."

Mossman thinks about words while riding his Kawasaki motorcycle around the central Iowa countryside. "I love taking the county roads over to the Mississippi River. I should be riding right now. I used to ride that thing four or five times a week. The [new] book has interrupted me."

With "The Stones of Summer" coming in at 552 pages, how did Mossman know when he was finished with it?

"People want to think the ending is an absolute setpiece. In a way, they shouldn't have been disappointed. Anything that is called 'finished' by a writer or a painter, they know it could be slightly different. It's never going to come out the way you imagined it when you started, but on the other hand it will be exactly like it or slightly beside it."

Dow Mossman throws his head back, takes a long puff from his cigar and moves a little closer to his notebooks. They are full of words. Summer has returned to Cedar Rapids.


Basketball, Bartending, Billiards Helped with Writer’s Block

By: Dave Hoekstra

Dow Mossman always had a kindred spirit in Indianapolis, where he spent several winters, hanging out with American Basketball Association star Bob Netolicky. They were best friends when they attended Washington High School in Cedar Rapids.

Netolicky, who was an all-star forward for the Indiana Pacers during the team's early '70s glory years in the old ABA, says, "I've known 'Moss' since we were 14. He came through town in 1971. I walked off the court at halftime, and there he was, standing there. This is when the novel was being processed. To make a long story short, he stayed four years."

While Netolicky was still playing, he ran Neto's, a popular bar in the Meadows Shopping Center (nicknamed "Neto's at the Meadows"), about two blocks from the state fairgrounds arena where the Pacers played.

Mossman became a bartender at Neto's. "I'm kind of famous," he says. "I had a hippie mattress down by the washing machine in Neto's townhouse. The pool table was right there, too. I loved it. It was me, Bob and one of his bartenders. It was in Indianapolis where I discovered Balzac, the only writer I ever read that truly frustrated me. Every other writer I've read, from Faulkner to Dostoevsky always gave me energy to write."

Netolicky, who now runs an auto auction house in Indianapolis, has read The Stones of Summer five times. "I concentrate on the last two parts [where a character based on him emerges]. He put so much into The Stones of Summer that when it didn't hit. ...I liken it to practicing basketball every day for five years, eight hours a night, you get your first tryout and get cut.

"He was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He had the wrong publisher. The wrong agent. You just don't want to try it again, and he said, 'To hell with it.' But now, for the first time in my life, I've seen him motivated. This whole deal with his book being resurrected makes him think, 'Hey, maybe I wasn't that bad.'"

Mossman's friendship with Netolicky also helped to unlock his writer's block.

"He's a character in my new novel," Mossman says. "If it comes off, it will be called Engine Town, and it will be about those years in Indianapolis. It's not only about the basketball player, but another best friend named Al Friedman. He's a one-line raconteur. He's hung around the [Indianapolis Motor] Speedway for 50 years. His nickname was 'Einstein,' and that was hung on him by some old race car drivers. If I bog down on the basketball stuff, I've got a lot of Speedway stuff."