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Long-lost Author is Subject of Search

By: Carrie Rickey

In the way that some guys trade baseball cards, Mark Moskowitz trades novels.

Yet as we see in the magnificent Stone Reader - surely the Moby-Dick of film documentaries - for Moskowitz books are not collectibles but intimates, guides to places in the heart and the mind to which only authors can take us. So it follows that he would make the movie equivalent of a page-turner, a nonfiction film about a life-altering work of fiction.

The award-winning director of political-campaign ads begins this novelistic documentary by identifying his great white whale: Dow Mossman, author of a 1972 novel called The Stones of Summer.

After reading a review that suggested it was his generation's Catch-22, Moskowitz, then a Penn student, bought Stones, only to find he couldn't penetrate the thickets of the first chapter.

Flash-forward to 1997, when Moskowitz, who treasures novels as Gatsby does his silk shirts, picks up Stones again and can't put it down. Wanting to share it with his friends, Moskowitz puzzles that he can't find other copies. Nor can he find the titles of other novels by the author. If not dead then under which stone is Mossman hiding? And why?

Those hip to mock-docs may for a moment wonder whether the supremely deadpan Moskowitz might be pulling our leg, whether the author he so assiduously seeks is an invention like Woody Allen's Zelig.

Soon Moskowitz's quest to find this elusive one-book author becomes both an involving real-life mystery and a passionate romance between a novelist and his ideal reader.

Like an easily distracted bloodhound, Moskowitz sniffs the trail that may lead him to Mossman but is happily diverted by literary deep dish.

He goes to Buffalo to talk to the late critic Leslie Fiedler (Love and Death in the American Novel), who shares his insights about the phenomena of one-shot novelists, such as Mossman, J.D. Salinger (Catcher in the Rye), Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird) and Ralph Ellison (Invisible Man).

He flies to Maine, where he lunches with John Seelye, whose review of The Stones of Summer made him buy the book, and they enjoy a most lively conversation about how the publishing world has become inhospitable to the kind of literary novels to which both men are drawn.

He travels to Iowa (where Mossman went to the university's Writers' Workshop) to talk to authors Frank Conroy and William Cotter Murray, who may or may not know Mossman's fate.

The film's recurring image is that of a butterfly fluttering around a flower, a lovely symbol of the reader drawn to a novel's nectar.

I won't spoil the suspense by revealing whether or not Moskowitz finally harpoons his white whale, but I will guess that his ode to fiction's unique power has to be as eloquent as the novel that inspired it.