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A Quixotian quest

March 13, 2003 21:14 IST

Documentarian Mark Moskowitz sets off on his literary caper like a sort of book detective. His plan: find the author of an out-of-print novel, The Stones Of Summer, make a film about the quest, and get the book back in print.

Whether he succeeds or not, viewers of the film will definitely be interested in reading the book. This way, Moskowitz has accomplished something as heroic as getting a lost literary masterpiece back into circulation. He has reversed a cliché: you will watch the movie, then read the book.

The story: in 1972, Moskowitz, a maker of campaign commercials, reads a rave review in The New York Times of a debut novel by young writer Dow Mossman. He starts to read the book but is unable to finish it. The review inspires him to return to the book some 30 years later and read it to the end. He then tries to find the author, who seems to have vanished off the face of the earth, never to write another book.

Unable to find any trace of Mossman, Moskowitz speaks to a cast of literary characters as interesting as those in any noir whodunit. There is the intimidating Leslie Fiedler, whose death last month gives his sequence a special poignancy. Fiedler is the magnificently iconoclastic literary critic whose theory of 'inter-ethnic male bonding' was extremely influential in American literary circles.

While discussing other one-book writers, Fiedler tells Moskowitz it is more typical to write one novel and disappear into the footnotes of history than one would think. He cites the example of Henry Roth's Call It Sleep, a masterpiece Fiedler himself may have brought back from literary oblivion. Then there is Harper Lee's classic, To Kill A Mockingbird.

Moskowitz speaks to Robert Gottlieb, editor of Joseph Heller's legendary anti-war novel, Catch-22, and to Frank Conroy, head of the Iowa Writers' Workshop. None of them remember Mossman or his novel, a work that has been hailed as a masterpiece by the few reviewers who managed to get through it.

By now, you are as caught up in the mystery of Mossman as Moskowitz. What happened to the man? Did he give up writing, like the poet Rimbaud? Did he kill himself out of frustration like John Kennedy Toole, author of the posthumous Pulitzer Prize-winning A Confederacy Of Dunces? Or did he go insane, unable to deal with the pressure of writing another novel after creating his masterpiece?

You will have to see the film to find the answer.

Moskowitz stretches out the suspense for as long as possible. His 128-minute documentary will keep viewers interested until its final minutes.

If it is a portrait of Mossman, a possible genius, the film is also a portrait of an ideal reader. Stone Reader tells the story of a Quixotian quest by a man who is more than a reader.

Moskowitz is the kind of reader writers live for.

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Jeet Thayil