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A lost novel rediscovered: Mossman's 'Stones of Summer' has triumphant return to print

Sunday, December 28, 2003

By Kristofer Collins

Writers and readers. It's a strange relationship born of words printed on a page. But all too often we forget that it is a partnership of equals.


"The Stones of Summer"
By Dow Mossman
Barnes & Noble ($19.95)

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Writers do the hard, lonely work of producing novels, excavating their imaginations and personal lives for tales to tell.

After the blood and tears are bound within the covers of a book, the readers get to kick back on a lazy afternoon and enjoy at their leisure.

Occasionally, though, we are reminded that readers are not simply a passive audience. A few years ago Tim Page brought the work of the largely forgotten Dawn Powell back to the public's attention. Thanks to his passion, Powell's biting novels of New York and Ohio have been collected in two handsome volumes by the prestigious Library of America.

The independent filmmaker Mark Moskowitz has just wrought a similar literary miracle. The attention his documentary "Stone Reader" brought to the long out-of-print novel by Dow Mossman has returned this amazing work of fiction from 1972 to print.

Readers everywhere should thank Moskowitz for giving us a true gift in the republication of Mossman's lone book.

Mossman's novel is a fever dream, a poetic American adventure every bit as comic and tragic, sprawling and intimate as the country itself.

In Dawes Williams, he creates a fictional voice as beautiful as song and as iconic as Holden Caulfield, Huck Finn and Sal Paradise. Dawes' experience of this country is at once that of the corn-fed, all-American boy and the visionary poet:

"They walked along alone together. Walt Disney himself smiled after in the heavens, with unbelievable pearly teeth, with red dancing angels and green flying fairies, with hair as slick as a riverboat gambler's, with deific head bigger than all the oil money in Texas. ... he was their patron saint, a gold, shiny medallion winking over and hung from the sky. They walked down streets as quiet as falling names."

We follow his progress from an impressionable little boy who is best friends with the town delinquent, Ronnie Crown, a kid who makes of cussing a love note to the English language, through his sex-charged adolescent high jinks of midnight gropings and explosive vandalism.

The book swings from laugh-out-loud misadventure to searing evocations of moaning tragedy so surehandedly, so convincingly, the reader is left wrecked and gasping for air by the final page. It's like riding in a car with your older brother as he brakes and swerves, threatening to fly off the road at any moment and laughing madly to himself while, in your total terror, you're amazed to find yourself laughing right along with him.

And yet Mossman can pull back from the brink and render young love with a completely sincere tenderness:

"There he developed a purer passion for a girl named Becky Thatcher. The irony was terrific, but he didn't care, that was her name. She smelt of dancing cinnamon moving about on the burned edge of dark rooms. They waltzed in the long, innocent cavern together. She watched him play baseball. He walked her home along the wet cement, in the rain. He didn't care. He loved her like God and the Angels. He recognized himself to be Andy Hardy, Henry Alridge, Beaver Cleaver. He didn't care. He was out of his mind. They talked, he thought. At the end of two endless months he kissed her quietly."

Dawes will eventually suffer a great loss, and after stints in college and a psychiatric hospital, he will disappear into the hazy retreat of Mexico, where he will attempt to understand himself.

The novel bends in on itself as Dawes composes a work of fiction based on the events that we have just read. The ghosts of the departed inhabit his work and impinge upon his sanity. The letters of a friend fighting in Vietnam are woven into Dawes' story reflecting and commenting on the horror of his own thoughts.

The character Dawes enters into a complex dialogue with the author Dawes that propels the novel to its inevitable conclusion.

Mossman's almost-forgotten novel has been returned to us, and we are the better for it. It is a masterful work of fiction told in a prose that is thin, wild mercury music.

In the documentary, Mossman laughs at the notion that his novel would ever make it back into print. Seeing large stacks of this new edition in the bookshops, one can only hope that he is laughing now not out of an incredulous disbelief, but instead out of that pride of accomplishment that inspires such a happy response.

Kristofer Collins is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.

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