Stones Thrown

When I first started my 100-novels project, a la Jane Smiley, I told myself I wouldn’t start a book and not finish it.

I started The Godfather by Mario Puzo and slugged my way through it, despite its stylistic and structural shortcomings (I may also be the only person in the universe who doesn’t like the film version all that much either).

But, this weekend, I gave up on a book, The Stones of Summer by Dow Mossman, which would’ve been the 27th novel in my selection. (Book 25, A Changed Man by Francine Prose and Book 26, Modern Baptists by James Wilcox, I hope to comment upon later.) I selected Stones because of a wonderful film The Stone Reader, a documentary by Mark Moskowitz, that I watched in the summer. (Anyone who loves reading–I highly recommend this documentary.)

In the documentary, Moskowitz gives high praises to Mossman’s novel. Moskowitz picked up the book (published 1972) after reading a glowing New York Times review by John Seelye, who introduces the hardback version of the novel reissued in 2003 by Barnes and Noble Press. After reading the novel — it took several tries over a period of years — Moskowitz became curious about the novel’s author. Like Harper Lee, who only recently resurfaced in the public eye, Mossman disappeared off the literary map after publication of his novel. (Lee, of course, served as Truman Capote’s assistant when Capote was researching In Cold Blood and so didn’t completely go away from the literary limelight, at least for a time.) Unlike Lee, whose To Kill A Mockingbird won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961,  Mossman’s book received its glowing accolades and then faded away into seeming oblivion, until Moskowitz’s film.

The film made me curious about the novel. I received a hardback version through BookMooch and decided to put it on my reading list. But, just five pages into the book, I gave up. Perhaps my recent experience of grading freshman composition papers has jaded me, but Mossman needed an editor. I realize that the opening section is narrated by eight-year-old Dawes Williams, but the prose is so purple as to be a brilliant violet that hurts the eyes.

When August came, thick as a dream of falling timbers, Dawes Williams and his mother would pick Simpson up at his office, and then they would all drive west, all evening, the sun before them dying like the insides of a stone melon, split and watery, halving with blood.

The opening sentence. What? August “thick as a dream of falling timbers,” the sun “… like the insides of a stone melon ….” Can we obscure meaning anymore with such overextended metaphors? What I see in this is an attempt to imitate Faulkner’s language. (And Faulkner sometimes verges on the purple himself.) It’s a failed attempt.  The prose carries on like that, at least through the first five pages. And then there are several unnecessary lapses in grammar (the voice of the narrator doesn’t seem to justify lapses such as this: “Before him lay the farm, Arthur.”) These lapses are distracting and such distraction takes the reader away from the fictional dream, or it did for me in this novel.

When Moskowitz discovered Mossman, who lives in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where he grew up, Mossman had become something of a recluse. He hadn’t written much of anything since Stones. Writing the novel apparently brought on a nervous breakdown as well as a major case of writer’s block, and the film makes clear how taxing writing a novel is to the writer’s psyche. I can sympathize with Mossman on this: Writing, any commitment to a work of art, is taxing; it takes everything you’ve got, and then some. I hope Mossman perhaps writes something else and submits it to an editor who cares enough to edit it. Stones has a glimmer of good storytelling, despite its faults. If a good editor were to pick it apart and remove the attempts at a faux-Faulkner, there might be something to it.

Perhaps one day, like Moskowitz, I can pick up Stones and see its value, but for now, I can only recommend the fine film Moskowitz made; it’s a beautiful tribute to the power of reading and the written word.

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books bought, books mooched, books read

Books bought:

  • Sams Teach Yourself Movable Type in 24 Hours
  • Design on A Dime
  • Small Spaces by Terence Conran

My apartment feels cluttered and I need to rearrange it. Plus I’ve become an HGTV addict. I also want to learn to use Movable Type better, and to make this site more appealing.

Books mooched:

  • The Stones of Summer by Dow Mossman

I would recommend very highly the movie The Stone Reader, a documentary about The Stones of Summer, reading, and Dow Mossman.

Books read:

  • No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy (see ramblings in entry below)

a hazy shade of blood

Hazy is the first word that comes to mind when reading Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men. It takes a while to get into the story, because details are slow to come. We have McCarthy characters like The Sheriff appearing and a lot of pronouns with hazy reference. And a lot of moments when the action of one set of characters moves through and into the others. Hazy also from the film of blood that stains the novel from the beginning. Bodies fall from the very beginning:

The man slid soundlessly to the ground, a round hole in his forehead from which the blood bubbled and ran down into his eyes carrying with it his slowly uncoupling world visible to see.

A random, seemingly hazy murder, done by a character, Anton Chigurh, whose motives for murder seem random. As random and hard to fathom as the violence that seems at the heart of America; it’s a violence with an apocalyptic streak. McCarthy’s characters and world seem as doom-haunted as Faulkner’s. Something in his characters’ worlds always seems to be coming to an end, whether its the vanishing frontier of All the Pretty Horses, or thin vanishing strings of sanity and certainty of No Country.

A plot does develop around the violence: A Vietnam veteran, Llewellyn Moss finds a pickup near the border surrounded by dead drug dealers. Moss takes off with a load of heroin and two million in cash. Cash that not only do the remaining drug dealers want, and will take any means necessary to retrieve, but also money that Chigurh wants. Chigurh’s motive for wanting the money, or how he knows about it seem unclear, as unclear as anything that motivates Chigurh, other than the pleasure he seems to take in killing.

The book erupts in a flurry of violence the law can’t contain. On the whole it’s as violent as some combination of Pulp Fiction and Natural Born Killers and the Book of Revelation, and share’s that book’s apocalyptic tone.

In the end, nothing that happens seems to make sense, even to the characters who survive. An older sheriff reflects on the madness overall that he sees:

It’s like they woke up and they don’t know how they got where they’re at. Well, in a manner of speaking they dont.

We’re in a new age, a new era. We are Adam. But, we are Adam standing at the edge of the earth and we can’t see ahead of ourselves or make sense of our madness.