Walter Kirn’s Mission to America was one of the talked about books of 2005. It was on a number of “Best of” lists and seemed like the type of book I enjoy: a quirky look at America, religion, etc. So I added it to my ridiculously large TBR list and managed to squeeze it in before 2005 ended.
In order to access the books merits I thought it might be fun to “review the reviews” and try to evaluate the critical reaction. First, a basic plot description. I’ll cheat and use the flap jacket text:
Mason LaVerle is a young man on a missionâ€”a mission to America. He was raised in a remote Montana town in the church of the Aboriginal Fulfilled Apostles, a matriarchal, not-quite-Christian, almost New-Ageish sect that, like the Amish, keeps a wary distance from mainstream life. But the Apostles face a dwindling membership, so Mason is sent on an outreach mission with another young man to bring back convertsâ€”and, more specifically, brides. And so these two naive believers head off in a van to encounter the contemporary scene in all its bewildering, seductive diversity. They prosyletize at malls, passing out leaflets in parking garages based on the condition of their cars and their bumper stickers. Eventually, they make their way to a gilded Colorado ski town, where, while promoting their un-American message of humble, serene, optimistic fatalism, Mason finds himself courting a young woman who used to pose for Internet porn sites, and his partner becomes the live-in guru of a guilt-ridden billionaire with chronic bowel complaints. Meanwhile, back in Montana, the Apostles are facing schism and extinction as their beloved leader, the Seeress, drifts toward death. The mounting pressures lead Mason to the brink of missionary madness.
The discussion that first piqued my interest in Mission to America was the Slate book club. Slate had critic Stephen Metcalf discuss the book with the author. Metcalf loved the book, calling it “utterly delightful” and gushed that Kirn had “mad skillz, yo.” Many reviewers saw the work as a satire, but Metcalf disagrees:
Everyone will call this book a “satire.” It is not a satire. Simply put, its plot is too strong, its emotional topographies too rich and varied . . . The book works because the simple nostalgic rectitude Mason feels for his own childhood place isn’t silly or overdone. In fact, it’s touching and believable; that Elder, in conspiracy with a craven Dale Carnegie-type named Lauer, might destroy the Apostles comes across as genuinely sad.
Kirn, also rejecting the satire label, describes his work as “affectionate realism.” He goes on to offer this description of his motivation for writing the novel:
There’s one more aspect of the book I’d like to touch on before I go. America is in spiritual crisis now, I sincerely believe it, and novelists just aren’t addressing this dire fact. As never before, we’re running around the world correcting other people on their politics, their economic systems, and everything else, but here at home life feels hollow and overextended. We can’t clean up the damage from our own storms. We can’t stop burning fuels we can’t replace. We can’t lose the weight. We can’t pay off the credit cards. We’re off on a thousand noble expeditions but back at base camp conditions are deteriorating. My novel allegorizes this situation and was written, now that we’re speaking candidly, out of a sense that the grand utopian energies that created the country in the first place are rapidly and disastrously dwindling. It’s high time, I think, for a mission to America, carried out from within, from the depths of our own history. My book takes a humorous, fanciful stab at imagining such an exercise (in miniature) and estimating its chances of success. I’m glad you liked it. I’m glad you’re recommending it. I wrote this peculiar novel from the heart, not satirically but prayerfully.
Metcalf and Kirn set the expectations high. They both go out of their way to set up the book as more than just a clever satire; more than just entertainment. I think these type of expectations led to much of the negative criticism the book received. The harshest critic, Jana Richman writing in the Washington Post, obviously feels Kirn failed to live up to expectations:
Walter Kirn’s book reviews are wickedly smart, tight, funny, insightful and often controversial, showing little tolerance for uninteresting characters, implausible setups or lack of real conflict or drama. All of which raises the question: Has Kirn read his latest novel?
[. . .]
If a book jacket touts its author as “one of the most acute observers of contemporary American life that we have,” that author must do more than point out the obvious. Kirn’s characters feel as if they have been cut and pasted on the page — composites acting out a contrived plot for the sake of offering the author a vehicle on which to lay obvious social insights.
[. . .]
Kirn has a keen eye for satiric details, such as the fake tans and personalized license plates of the wealthy and the cheap vinyl shoes and short-sleeved white shirts of the missionaries. But his novel doesn’t provide the nuance to give us new perspective on these characters. Reading about them in the pages of this novel isn’t any more thoughtful than reading about their counterparts in the pages of a celebrity magazine.
This is pretty harsh stuff. Writing in the USA Today Bob Minzesheimer shares some of Richman’s criticisms. He calls Kirn a “graceful critic, essayist and novelist” but finds Mission to America to be a disappointment. “It’s just not that funny or biting and ends too predictably.”
Not having read Kirn’s previous work I didn’t bring any baggage to the book, but I share some of the feelings of these critics. The book never seems to rise to its potential. America’s history of reinventing religion and its constant search for meaning outside of traditional sources is an interesting subject. And the clash of isolated faith and oddball materialism has great satirical potential. But Kirn seems so caught up in describing the events and the quirky characters that he never really takes it deeper.
I think the problem may be the main character Mason LaVerle. LaVerle carries the weight of the story. If you like LaVerle – as Metcalf obviously did – you will enjoy the book. As Richman points out, however, LaVerle is both too naive and too wise to be believable. He moves from practically total isolation from American culture to immersion with little struggle other than disappointment in teeth whitening products. He goes from cheaply dressed cult geek to sleeping with a former Internet porn star without a blink. Kirn moves the plot forward with little plausible explanation for all of these relationships. The set-up is strong but at some point all of the wackiness begins to feel slightly contrived.
Despite these weaknesses, Mission to America is still an enjoyable book. As Richman notes, Kirn has a keen eye for satiric detail. And as Metcalf noted, LaVerle is a unique character. He is both an outsider look at America from a fresh perspective, but also honest enough to admit the faults and weaknesses of his own faith. He is in many ways a sympathetic character. Ariel Gonzalez, writing in the Miami Herald, notes this unique role which reflects Kirn’s personal experience:
The process of defamiliarization is a satirical hoot. Kirn exposes our foibles and vanities with a deadpan ironic tone leavened with dollops of compassion. A lapsed Mormon, he understands the drawbacks of subordinating oneself to a restrictive mode of thought. But he has little patience for secular shallowness. Thus, this is neither a red state nor a blue state novel (if any such animal exists); Kirn sees past this media-created dichotomy to the purplish hues, our commonalities of purpose.
John Dicker’s review in the Denver Post I think reflects the proper balance:
”Mission to America” packs a lot into its 271 pages. It’s at once a road trip, a coming-of-age narrative, and a broad skewering of American dislocation and decadence. The rich whom Mason encounters are as absurd as they are captivating. Their sycophants, whose numbers Elder soon joins, are far worse. In the details Kirn is masterful and hilarious.
[. . .]
A critic and columnist for The New York Times Magazine and Time, Kirn grabs the imagination more easily than the heart. He ensnares his characters in a bizarre alpine cul-de-sac finale that defies all plausibility. Their mission’s ending is so frantic it leaves its witnesses trying to piece it back together instead of reeling from its collective weight. Not unlike his protagonist, Kirn seems way too skeptical to render the mind-set of a true believer. Whatever serious point he’s trying to make about the crowded marketplace of American spirituality is buried beneath his enjoyable, if not terribly illuminating, satirical ethnography.
So there you have it. If you can put expectations of illumination or deep insight behind you and just enjoy it as a comical romp through the absurdity of America’s vast population, Mission to America is an enjoyable read. If – like the author – you are looking for something deeper I am afraid you won’t find it. At least I didn’t.