Of all the well-spoken bookmen (and they are all, indeed, men) who populate Mark Moskowitz’s documentary Stone Reader (now at Film Forum), none carries quite the Moses-grade authority of the late critic Leslie Fiedler, who holds forth in effortless paragraphs—on Ellison and Salinger, on the overlapping symptoms of success and failure—with nary an errant phrase. His hands shake visibly, and age cakes his voice, but a lifetime in literature has refined his mind to a singularly dazzling point. If the film’s title encompasses both Moskowitz, whose midlife encounter with The Stones of Summer, Dow Mossman’s forgotten 1972 novel, forms the basis for his obsessional quest, and Mossman himself, who (it turns out) has spent the inglorious decades since publication burrowing in Shakespeare and Gibbon—then Fiedler is the epitome of the breed, a reader so devout as to seem a fact of nature.
Here is what happens. On January 29, about an hour after Stone Reader has its first critics’ screening and an hour before Moskowitz and I speak, Fiedler dies at age 85 in Buffalo, where he has taught since 1964. We don’t know this fact until a few days later, but in the early innings of a leisurely, have-you-read-this-yet? talk (so leisurely, indeed, that his publicist politely kicks us out of her office), Moskowitz tells me about the shot that got away: Out of film, his crew packing up, he watched as Fiedler scrutinized the copy of Stones Moskowitz had brought along, considered its 552-page heft. (To Moskowitz’s chagrin, he’d never even heard of it.)
“I can’t read this kind of book any longer,” Fiedler concluded, adding, “I also believe this is something worthwhile.” His house had caught fire a few years earlier, destroying over 5000 volumes. Against one wall of a room, as Moskowitz describes it, a damaged bookcase held his slowly replenishing collection—titles sent by old friends such as the novelist John Barth (formerly his Buffalo colleague). Against another stood a new, completely empty bookcase.
Moskowitz paces, miming the action. “He takes it, he puts it on the blank shelf—he puts it there and he looks at it and he slowly turns back. If I had had that shot,” he says, “we could have stopped the film right there.” How perfect: an audacious novel, lost in the shuffle and rediscovered by Moskowitz, now asserting itself in the consciousness of the man who unearthed and championed Call It Sleep—the American man of letters par excellence. With Fiedler gone, the unfilmed scene haunts in its remembrance: after so long a life, so much still unread. It is to become a willing Sisyphus.
Though Fiedler was unfamiliar with the one-and-done Mossman, the novelist had apparently heard of him. The Summer of Mossman’s title not only sets seasonal coordinates but immortalizes Summer Letch, the narrator’s high school sweetheart—another thinly sketched female designed to drive you wild. (Great name, though!) She’s all too in line with Fiedler’s contention, in his brilliant Love and Death in the American Novel (1961), that this country has produced a literary tradition of relentless Thanatos and immature Eros. Perhaps the deficiency is conscious, for Mossman provides a bit of postmodern self-critique: When Dawes Williams (Dow’s alter ego) quotes a line from Twain that conjures the critic’s notorious reading of a homoerotic bond between Huck and Jim, his paramour replies, “What? Fiedler’s famous thing?”
“Throwing it all away in the end was the epitome of style,” Dawes decides early on; The Stones of Summer, organized by an intensely synesthetic fusing of sensory information, dream and waking, forlorn memory and the dissolute present, is a ruin-in-progress shored against the stone reality of entropy. Simple words recombine across hundreds of pages, like elements in a massive villanelle—throat, hat, wing, nest, and especially stone, which Mossman reuses in a manner similar to the way William Gaddis keeps resetting the title word of his omnivorous 1955 debut, The Recognitions (which also featured a semi-autobiographical novelist manqué in gringo self-exile).
Word-drunk and wittingly pretentious, chocked with incident but with no plot to speak of, Stones unfolds in three barely digested parts. (The massively reworked drafts and notebooks, shown in the film, illuminate the nightmare capacity of the author’s talent.) But for great stretches, Mossman keeps his hooks in the reader, shooting his audaciously dense style with casual cruelty and bolts of inspired hilarity—from a book on the birds and the bees with “anti-Michelangelo line drawings” to punchline-perfect refrains of stoner approval (“Atttttsssss Dawes”). The final section’s structural chutzpah—scrambled chronology, Dawes’s own attempts at fiction, letters from a friend fighting in Vietnam—exert initial fascination, but has aged less well than the earlier parts. The old refrain—nothing odd lasts: The book’s hangover atmosphere becomes most punishing here. At the end, it’s Dawes’s youth one remembers best: the wild-child delinquent Ronnie Crown, the dog-breeding culture as presided over by his tyrannical grandfather, a disastrous croquet game relayed in mock-epic fashion. (For now Stones seekers will have to pony up the cash: The book recently fetched $1326 on eBay.)
In his voracious reading life, the engagingly glib Moskowitz gravitates toward strong-voiced fictioneers: Faulkner and Vonnegut, James Ellroy and Joseph McElroy, Kundera perhaps above all. As he grows older, he likes Nabokov less, and reads more nonfiction than formerly: the sempiternal Sebald, Barbara Tuchman, a biography of John Maynard Keynes. But in this prolonged age of the image (the power of which Moskowitz, a successful 20-year veteran of political campaign ads, knows all too well), are books dead? Based on energetic responses to the film at festivals (lobbies turning into impromptu salons), Moskowitz believes people still actually read—thoughtfully, compulsively. A meditation on bibliophilia as holy curse, Stone Reader is simultaneously a paean to a dying medium and a revocation of that obituary. As if anticipating his novel’s second life, Mossman writes, “Sometimes words are the longest things there are.”