I watched a marvelous documentary last night, Stone Reader. A film maker, Mark Moskowitz, goes on a quest to find a one-hit-wonder novelist, Dow Mossman, whose one-and-only novel was published in the early Seventies. It got a great review in The New York Times, and then faded into obscurity, almost well beyond obscure, into a lingering ghost that just doesn’t seem to ever leave Moskowitz’s mind. When he first buys the book, he tries to read it, but it doesn’t hold him. Over the years, he reads some of the novel, but keeps putting it aside. But in middle age, he gives it another try and finds it to be one of the best novels he’s read in a long time. For him it seems to hold up to its initial reviews–an American classic that might very well vye for the title of that elusive beast the Great American Novel.
Anyhow, after reading the novel, he becomes obsessed with discovering as much as he can about Mossman, and perhaps finding him, pursuing the question of "Why is the only book this writer ever published?"
The documentary follows Moskowitz on this search through libraries, publishers, agents and academics (there are even visits and interviews with critic Leslie Fieldler and the late writer and Iowa workshop director Frank Conroy). Moskowitz in his search discovers that Mossman was a student at the Iowa workshop in the late Sixties, but was someone obscure even to his former classmates.
As the quest continues, a side theme develops–how powerfully reading connects us, not only to other readers but to life itself. Reading, as Frank Conroy notes, is an active act. It puts us in the same room, in the same mind as Shakespeare or Dickens or Dow Mossman. I was equally as fascinated by this side theme as I was the quest for finding Mossman.