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Movie review: 'Stone Reader'

Special to the Tribune

4 stars (out of 4)

The 2002 documentary "Stone Reader," which opens Friday at Facets Multimedia, begins as a search for a mysterious man who wrote a book. Along the way, it becomes a journey through the creative process. Such are the vagaries of art.

In 1972, 18-year-old Mark Moskowitz - then a student, now a maker of political commercials - read a rave review in the New York Times that called "The Stones of Summer," a first novel by a young Midwesterner named Dow Mossman, "a milestone … the definitive book of a generation." Moskowitz bought the paperback, didn't take to it, and put it down after a few pages.

But when he grabbed it again 25 years later, he loved it so much that he wanted to send copies to his book-reading pals and read Mossman's other works. But he couldn't. Not only was "The Stones of Summer" out of print, but Mossman had never published anything else. Why? What had happened to him? Was he sick? Dead? Institutionalized? Moskowitz felt driven to find out.

"Stone Reader" follows the determined Moskowitz as he traverses the country, following clues and rumors, trying to track down this literary phantom. As he follows leads up dark alleys and slams into dead ends, we meet astute members of this country's literary establishment. These include critic Leslie Fiedler, author of "Love and Death in the American Novel" (who has since passed away), and writer Frank Conroy, the author of "Stop-Time," who currently heads the prestigious Iowa Writers' Workshop.

Though these enthusiastic interviews inevitably begin with questions about Mossman (whom they've never heard of, or can only recall vaguely), Moskowitz soon finds himself discussing the literary truisms that help define Mossman. For instance, why is it that some authors stop writing after an important first book? They're known in the book biz as "one and done" writers, and theirs is a phenomenon that recalls famous names like Margaret Mitchell ("Gone With The Wind"), Harper Lee ("To Kill a Mockingbird") and Emily Bronte ("Wuthering Heights").

In a separate series of exchanges, the enigmatic issue of a hugely successful first novel comes up (think: J.D. Salinger). Particular insight into this problem is provided by Robert Gottlieb, who edited Joseph Heller's "Catch-22," one of the most successful debut novels in American literature.

But even as Moskowitz takes these thematic detours, his eyes remain on the prize: the whereabouts of the enigmatic Dow Mossman. Before long, the film turns into a literary thriller that would make Arthur Conan Doyle proud. At one point, I actually whooped when it seemed that one of the interviewees not only remembers "The Stones of Summer," but has specific memories of young Mr. Mossman.

To reveal any more about Moskowitz's investigation would be not unlike giving away the ending of "Citizen Kane." What I will say is that Moskowitz may soon find himself in the same boat as many of the artists he is analyzing, because "Stone Reader" is going to be one tough act to follow.

"Stone Reader"
Written and directed by Mark Moskowitz; produced by Moskowitz, Robert Goodman; photographed by Joseph Vandergast, Jeffrey Confer, Moskowitz; edited by Moskowitz, Kathleen Soulliere; music by Michael Mandrell. Featuring interviews with Leslie Fiedler, Frank Conroy, William Cotter Murray and others. Running time: 2:07. No MPAA rating (brief strong language).

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