The Writer Went AWOL
By: Nancy Ramsey
Thirty years ago, director Mark Moskowitz, then a student at the University of Pennsylvania, picked up a big fat novel.
"I had read this review in The New York Times Books Review that said reading The Stones of Summer was like crossing another Rubicon, that it burned with a generational fire, a sacred fire," he recalled over lunch -- "No coffee, thanks, I'm hyper enough" -- in midtown Manhatten. "I started reading it, but they weren't dropping acid by page 5, and I thought, 'Did I get the right book?' You have to remember this was 1972, and I was 18. So I put it down."
Moskowitz finished college, married, became a dad and a producer of political commercials, and still that big fat novel by Dow Mossman stayed on his bookshelf.
In 1998, a campaign year, he was getting ready to hit the road.
"I always look for books that fit in my back pocket," he said. "I had made a stack of paperbacks, in my typical compulsive way -- thin ones, usually science fiction or mysteries; fat ones like Anna Karenina and Stones of Summer."
Anticipating a long plane ride, he picked up "Stones" -- and in so doing took the first step in the making of his documentary, Stone Reader, a quirky, charming, literary detective film that celebrates reading.
By then, Moskowitz's literary tastes had become more refined -- and times had changed. Dropping acid by page 5 was no longer a requirement. He read The Stones of Summer slowly and deliberately, savoring the main character's boyhood in Iowa; his teenage years, "drinking, figuring out how to date girls"; and his "dropping out of society, in the old-fashioned hippie term." Classic '60s stuff.
"But what was amazing," he said, "is that Mossman wrote it while it was happening."
"Stones," he added, "was funny, ambitious, exuberant -- as one of the reviewers said, 'This book is America.' And it was a coming of age story that made me think about my friens when I was growing up, about the creative ambitions I had back then. Fiction today is so pared down -- someone gets in the car and drives to the store. In Stones you get in the car, drive for three years, end up in Mexico."
Like any avid reader, Moskowitz hit the Web to find more books by Dow Mossman. He found none.
Stone Reader could be subtitled "Where in the World Is Dow Mossman?" The film takes us from Moskowitz's rural home in Pennsylvania to Maine, Florida, Iowa, Texas, Manhatten, and San Francisco, as, along the way, he interviews writers, editors, critics, and agents. What starts out as a quest to locate kindred souls who have read Stones -- and to find Mossman himself -- turns into something much larger, as Moskowitz turns initial dead ends into conversations about everything from the love of reading and the vagaries of publishing to the comfort of finding a familiar bookshelf in an unfamiliar place.
Of Mossman's not writing a second book, Carl Brandt, his agent, says on camera, "It's the kind of thing that breaks one's heart as an agent. There was this magnificent piece of work and then silence."
Writer Frank Conroy, who runs the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, which Mossman attended, speaks eloquently of books, through which "you encounter worlds you possibly couldn't encounter in any other way. You feel the pressure of another human soul on the other side of the book, and that makes you feel less alone. ... When I read Dickens, I feel the old man might just as well be sitting right next to me."
Stone Reader won the Audience Award for Best Feature at last year's Slamdance Film Festival. The film is "completely different. That's what makes it so delightlful," said David Thomson, author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film. "It's somewhere between a documentary and an essay film. It's overlong, it's untidy, but that's true to the feeling of the film. I fell in love with it. You feel this is made by a smart guy with passion and a bee in his bonnet."
And a story to tell, though Moskowitz wasn't clear what that story was when he set out.
"I thought the big thing would be finding the reviewer, the guy who wrote that Times review," he said. (He does; whether he finds Mossman himself will not be revealed here.)
"The narrative is the search," he continues. "The story is about how much reading has meant to me in my life, and it's about connecting to audiences, about how much reading has meant in their lives."
He pauses, takes a bite out of the brownie that's compensating for his lack of coffee, and adds, "The second part wasn't clear to me until I watched it with an audience."