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Visions of the Past

The Stones of Summer by Don Mossman Bobbs Merrill $995 552 pp

By Gregory F. Lawless

IN THE PAST a writer was judged upon the basis of each novel separately because each contained a great deal of his own world view. Novels were years in the writing inconsistencies in thought between work's were fewer Today it's a rare thing indeed to find a good novelist who is consistent in his thought. Those few who can begin well with a first novel soon fade into mediocrity. Even those who write several good novels fad to remain faithful to their former selves. This inconstancy may be the result of literary commercialism--a system whereby an author is paid for books before they're written. But whatever the cause, it has left us to judge the novelist not by one work alone, but by what the French call an oeuvre, the fragments of the complete vision found in separate volumes of a whole life's work.

If The Stones of Summer is to be the first of a much larger oeuvre it must have a profound influence on Dow Mossman's vision of life, because it creates an awareness of this world rarely found in a first novel. That its vision is poetic and lengthy does not distract from its final effect, its suggestiveness uncovers the emotions, leaving them exposed to a situation that only lengthy development can make clear.

The Stones of Summer runs deep with thick sensuous images:

The early moon flat and luminous, obscure as wings and eyes, was a dance of naked fish scales propelling white, staring weather through the reeds of driven storm clouds. The west wind off the river was rising. The evening was going to rain Lightning flashed in the far trees illuminating dark edges for seconds with electric nets Off, distant the thunder collapsed the blue bluffs like puffs of Indian smoke instantly dead. The hill shifted in the art shifted in the air positioning itself waiting.

This is the vision of eight-year-old Dawes Williams on his grandfather's greyhound farm in 1949. The Stones of Summer is the story of his short life from childhood to his final rejection of its meaning.

DAWES IS A GENIUS, half mad probably schizophrenic. He is the first serious representative of the television generation. Instead of quoting lines from books he quotes scenes from moves. But he is no ordinary boob-tube befriending hard, nor is he the acid rock counter-culture stereotype so predominant among his contemporaries in fiction. Mossman reveals this as he carefully describes growing up in Iowa after the war, through the rowdy-but never-un-American fifties and the confusing and almost decadent sixties.

The novel unfolds at three part form. The first, "A Stone of Day 1949-50" is the description of a weekend at Dawes's grandfather's farm. Dawes's parents are nice, intelligent, and liberal, but they're not outstanding. His grandparents are unique. His grandfather believes in "The Elementary Need and the Universal Import of the Competitive Drive in Man." His grandmother makes Dawes listen to every preacher on the radio all Sunday morning. But even they are unimportant compared to the one great influence in Dawes' early life: Abigail Winas.

Abigail raises chickens by herself; she's considered crazy by some, a witch by others. She isn't one to deny either allegation, recognizing the Druid blood in herself as something beautiful. Abigail teaches Dawes of the importance of being aware of his family history and of his own personal history. When Dawes asks her about his great-great-grandfather she says something that seems to reduce their existence to its essence:

I think it's almost pure-dee simple finally. I think he was just another mad run-of-the-mill old celt, like me, like you I suppose looking for a place, another deserted wood to stone himself off from them for awhile. You'll find out about them all right, you won't be able to help yourself, but when you do, just remember--just go about your business and pretend they was only passing through.

Dawes learns one more thing from Abigail. As she silently walks away from him for the last time, plucking a chicken, she says "TAG YOU ARE THE ONE WHO HAPPENS TO BE IT NOW."

What finally happens in the second part. "Stones of Night 1956-61" is typical. Dawes excels in little league only because he's a clever cheater. In the next few years Dawes drinks by the quarry and consistently ruins his father's car. He gives everything he does an extra flavor. He is continually beaten up, to the point where he is spitting blood. Still, he continues in a Celtic hedonism and self-abuse. But there is one tragic event that changes his life. This leads to part three, "The Stones of Dust and Mexico 1967-68."

HERE, THE NOVEL proceeds into confusion along with Dawes, who can find no firm identity and becomes schizophrenic. But, the confusion of the third part is controlled, even if Dawes is not. The result definitely justifies the reading. Besides chronological disarray, a new element is introduced, chapters from Dawes's own novella in progress.

The opening sentences make his position quite clear:

Dawes Williams is left alone with an image. Nothing.

There is no sense to be had in the universe, there is only the illusion-of meaning.

This philosophy of nihilism leaves Dawes with a choice: he can either commit suicide, thus rejecting a meaningless life, or he can as Todd Andrews did in John Barth's The Floating Opera, conclude that he might as well live on because suicide is also meaningless.

All of Dawes's life seems to point towards the second conclusion. But then. Dawes is dead in the end we are left in doubt as to whether it is (1) the result of his family's genetic history; (2) the conscious result of Dawes' death-wish reinforcing the suicide angle; or (3) an accident of fate, the result of Dawes' own personal history.

We are, at different points in the novel, informed that there is an inheritable disease in the Williams family, and that Dawes has only sixteen months to live. But Dawes seems to die of an eye infection, which he may have purposely tried to receive, and then neglected. The final question remains does he accept death because he wills it or because it's immediately inevitable?

We never really find out Mossman has purposely left the resolution in a haze of perpetual speculation. We can only guess why he has left the denouement in need of another. Perhaps because he sees in Dawes's death a firmer resolution. More likely, because a great deal of his material is taken from his own life. Dawes Oldham Williams is Dow. But to continue Dawes's life in conjunction with the life of Mossman would only lead to the writing of a novel and not death. So Dawes finds life in Dow Mossman, to a point. This point of departure is Mossman's own philosophical confusion. Because, if he firmly believes in nihilism, he must make the choice between suicide and absurdism himself. He obviously can't.

THAT THAT MAY HAVE been another serious limitation of The Stones of Summer has been more carefully considered by Mossman. Many first novels are drawn from the author's past experiences. If not treated with restraint, this kind of writing can become a kind of self-purgation, ending in emptiness of vision and loss of imagination.

But Dow Mossman hasn't used restraint, and his poetic recklessness has produced a strong first novel nonetheless. He deserves comparison with the best novelists of the first half of this century, and he has the potential to become one of the best novelists of the second half.

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