The story behind The Stones of Summer is almost as interesting as the book itself. Originally published in 1972 (see the image to the right), the book was met with critical acclaim and very little commercial success. The process of its creation took thousands of pages worth of drafts and revisions, as well as a brief stint in a mental institution for its troubled young author, Dow Mossman. Before long, Stones of Summer had vanished from stores and Dow Mossman dropped off the face of the earth.
According to my friend, Mark Eleveld (who also managed to score me a signed copy), the story of the book’s resurrection is this: upon the book’s release, an aspiring filmmaker named Mark Moskowitz bought it, began reading it, and found that he couldn’t finish it, exiling it to a bookshelf for almost 30 years. Then one day, he plucked it off the shelf, read it, and was completely enamored of it. Wanting more, he searched for other works by Mossman and found that not only had Mossman never written again, but he seemed to have disappeared completely. So Moskowitz did what he was born to do: he made a movie about it—Stone Reader—and managed to track down Mossman, a blue-collar grunt in Iowa. The film revived enough interest in the book to get it reprinted by Barnes & Noble, and now Mossman is apparently even writing again.
This is where I come in, possessed of a nicely autographed hardcover copy. I received in much earlier this year, but for one reason or another, I was incessantly delayed, reading it in chunks. This is partially due to schedule issues with me, but also in part because I ran into some of what Moskowitz probably encountered thirty years ago: The Stones of Summer is an incredibly dense book, and it doesn’t get any easier the closer one gets to the end. Mossman reminds me a bit of F. Scott Fitzgerald, in that his primary concern seems to be not storytelling, but the sex of the language. Mossman has one of the most unique styles I’ve ever read: he creates absurd, liquid metaphors that solidify as they’re being read. “Eyes as wide as dinner plates and wonder” doesn’t make any sense… until it does, in a strangely satisfying sort of way.
Indeed, Mossman seems to be a much better poet than storyteller. Unless he’s achieving for some sort of meta-irony (and that may very possibly be), his dialogue is like George Lucas’. Despite the number of levels upon which the story operates (which becomes an absurd number by the end), they are rhetorically crushed together by Mossman’s style. When the hero of the book, Dawes Oldham Williams, speaks, his words are entirely indistinguishable from Mossman’s narration. When Dawes writes, his writing is that of Dow Mossman. Thus, even young Dawes sounds as though his words are pompous and scripted. I say again, though, this may very well be intentional: the book has a constant air of the surreal about it, and the conversation is no exception.
The book is divided into three parts, the first being of young Dawes (perhaps 8 or 9—I forget the exact figure), driving out to the Iowa farm of his grandfather, Arthur, who raises greyhounds for racing. It’s an introduction to Dawes, yes, and his precocity and obstinacy, just like his grandfather, but it’s more a paean to the Midwest, like an extended, glorious poem about the ‘split melon’ suns, the dusks like ‘dark milk,’ the horrible nostalgia of 1950s Iowa. It elicited my own memories of rural Nebraska, and for some reason I felt a great connections to Mossman’s metaphors, which painted the requisite pictures in my mind.
The second part is that of Dawes as a teenager, doing little else but either drinking and smoking with his friends or fornicating with that week’s object of his affection (the appropriately allegorical Summer Letch, for instance). There is actually very little that happens in this middle section except for an endless stream of debauchery and delinquency, which is ended abruptly by a horrible accident.
The third and final part of the book finds Dawes in Mexico, ten years after the accident, becomes schizoid in its narration, jumping around from time to time. It also contains an absurd number of literary regressions, a mise en abyme taken to ridiculous lengths. Mossman writes about Dawes, who writes a notebook about Dawes and Handsaw, his alter ego, who writes a play. It is through these devices that the reader gets some sense of what has happened in the ten years that have elapsed since the end of the second part. The writing is fragmented, very stream-of-consciousness. I was reminded of when I slogged through Ulysses at 15. It’s no wonder Mossman went mad from writing it.
The Stones of Summer is bildungsroman gone horribly, horribly wrong. It’s as if all the required plot devices have been turned on their head, and then Mossman paints them with gorgeous words and frames it, a beautifully grotesque piece of modern art. It strikes me as precisely the sort of work that would elicit critical acclaim and almost no commercial success. The Stones of Summer was work to read, and certainly far more to digest than I could ever hope to do in the first reading.
I have no easy suggestion for those interested in reading this. I think that it’s relevance to, say, a Brit, or even a coastal American, might be considerably less than someone like myself. It might not be the Great American Novel, but it’s perhaps the closest thing we have to a Great Midwestern Novel. And that says something.