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A literary detective story celebrates books and the people who write them

W hen I was an exuberant little undergrad in the early 1990s, my friends and I used to spend a lot of time speculating about the private lives of mysterious authors, men who never appeared in public and produced dark conspiratorial books at rare intervals. The primary object of our fascination was Thomas Pynchon, the reclusive author who had been silent since the 1973 publication of his epic novel Gravity's Rainbow. In our overheated imaginations, Pynchon assumed a Colonel Kurtz-like proportion and we fancied that he was a fugitive from CIA retribution, hiding out on his own private Mt. Sinai where he was composing his final testament to the shadow-play that calls itself reality. We even thought he might be the Unabomber.

So it was with considerable disappointment that we found out that Pynchon had been living for years with his wife and child on Manhattan's Upper West Side, a fact that was revealed around the time that his underwhelming Vineland was published. But the fascination with the inner lives of men and women who devote their lives to putting sentence after sentence on paper continues. Now, first time documentary maker Mark Moskowitz has made Stone Reader, a film that taps into the mystery of why authors write, and why they don't. (It's also the second stellar doc to enter theaters this summer, after the gripping Spellbound, which is currently thrilling Triangle audiences.)

Moskowitz's story begins with a book that was published the same year as Gravity's Rainbow, but unlike Pynchon's magnum opus, was quickly forgotten. The book is Stones of Summer, the first (and only) novel by an obscure Iowan named Dow Mossman. In those days Moskowitz was a book-loving college student and he read a rave review in the New York Times Book Review that hailed Mossman as the definitive voice of his generation. Moskowitz purchased the book eagerly and began to read it. When he wasn't instantly hooked, he filed it away and moved on to another book.

A committed bibliophile with a particular fondness for the anti-establishment satires of Vonnegut, Roth and Heller, Moskowitz nonetheless proceeded to join the establishment as a successful producer of television commercials for Democratic politicians. (His dozens of past clients include several N.C. politicos, Al Gore and the one-time progressive mayor of Cincinnati, Jerry Springer.) But as his life progressed and his library grew bigger, he kept Stones of Summer around--planning one day to read the novel of his generation.

When he finally read Mossman's book, several years ago, he was floored by this sprawling, apparently word-drunk narrative of Midwestern, Vietnam-era youth. Moskowitz is nothing if not a maniacal collector and completist, so he set out to read everything else by the mysterious author.

After discovering that Mossman had not written a thing since, a light clicked on for Moskowitz who began working on the film as a midlife hobby and a fan's quest. With time, money and expertise readily available, he began by seeking out academics, including the visibly ailing, now-deceased literary critic Leslie Fiedler, who happens to have an interest in one-book authors like Joseph Heller, Ralph Ellison, Henry Roth and Harper Lee. Though Fiedler hasn't heard of Stones of Summer, he speculates that some authors are only meant to write one book. Elsewhere in the film, the famed editor Robert Gottlieb (who discovered Catch-22) explains the importance of marketing, luck and having the right publisher.

Over the course of a couple of years, Moskowitz followed numerous leads that go nowhere but yield fascinating interviews with people in the biz who offer insights into the humble fraternity of literary obscurity. The director finally strikes gold when he travels to Iowa to find Mossman's mentor at the University of Iowa's celebrated writing program. (This man was once a feared taskmaster, but now in his dotage he's a cackling, twinkly Scotsman from central casting.)

Although this is a tremendously enjoyable film, there are some failings. Moskowitz's flair for the visual sometimes becomes decorative, as if years of producing feel-good spots of politicians posing at home with their well-scrubbed families have taken their toll. There are a few too many sunsets and flowers used for visual filler, but then there's a magnificent and moving sequence in which the director reads in voiceover his mournful diary reflection on that day's death of Heller, while we're treated to a montage of amusement park rides at night. It's hard to explain why the juxtaposition works, but it does.

But there's another serious concern. Moskowitz never asks the question: Is this book really a masterpiece? Could that rave review in the Times have been a mistake, a momentary lapse by a critic looking to discover a new writer? After all, errors in judgment get made in the other direction. As the filmmaker himself notes, many books have declared masterpieces after years of languishing in remainder bins--among them Moby Dick, Henry Roth's Call it Sleep and Dreiser's Sister Carrie. (Even Shakespeare--though popular in his own day--had to wait two hundred years before the 19th century Romantics elevated him to the godhead that he still occupies.) Significantly, Moskowitz presses the book on several reader-friends, but no one seems to be able to finish it. There's little substantive discussion of the book, but from the available evidence, it seems to be a Thomas Wolfe-like sprawl of prose-poetry, a roman a clef of a sensitive youth. (The book will be re-published in the fall by Barnes & Noble.)

However, in the end, it may not really matter if the book is indeed a lost masterpiece. As someone in the film notes, readers are co-creators. What may not be up to Harold Bloom's standards can be a life-changing experience for someone else. Furthermore, whether or not Stones of Summer is indeed destined for canonical status, it doesn't change the fact that a lonely human being devoted years of single-minded effort to putting this story on paper and this film makes us respect that accomplishment.

Moskowitz is nothing if not a savvy tease, and he withholds his encounter with Mossman until near the end of the film. Rather than than spoil the revelation that Moskowitz has so cannily set up, let's just say that this film is a satisfying valentine to books and the pleasures of reading them. Afterward, I wanted to go home and catch up on my "to-read" stack.

However, I did not find myself wanting to write a novel of my own. As Stone Reader makes clear, writing is a fearsome business. Moskowitz's film is a monument to that heroic, lonely and mostly unremunerated vocation. EndBlock

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