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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3 thoughts on “Stones Thrown

  1. the insides of a stone melon, split and watery, halving with blood

    Um, I would think the insides of a stone melon would be STONE, not watery and halving with blood.

    But that’s just me.

    I love dense language, but this? It’s as dense as a … stone … melon … 😉

  2. 5 pages? It must have really been bad. Sheesh, I made it further through The Da Vinci Code before giving up. It wasn’t even so-bad-it’s-comedic? I guess when you spend so much time reading, let’s say, “novice” prose like you do, you don’t have much tolerance for anything that’s not refined.

  3. I’m loathe to give up a book once I’ve started it. I started Thomas Pynchon’s “Mason & Dixon” a few months ago, and I actually liked it. But for some reason, I just gave up after three chapters. I don’t know why. Maybe I just wasn’t in the mood for it. I hope to read it some day, if only to finally understand why Pynchon is loved or hated, depending on who you’re talking to.

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