I am a huge Walter Kirn fan. His first novel, She Needed Me, still holds a place in my top ten list of all time favorite books. His follow up, Thumbsucker, is a hilarious and complex story of a young man’s oral fixation and the roots of the behavior within his dysfunctional family life. I wasn’t too keen on his third novel Up in the Air, mainly because I don’t find the culture of flying half as interesting as Kirn does, but that was okay because his great writing made up for it. Naturally, I was happy as a kitten with a ball of catnip-coated yarn when his fourth novel, Mission to America, finally came out.
It’s the story of Mason LaVerle, a life long member of the Aboriginal Fulfilled Apostles, a small religious sect that has produced generations of followers in a small town in rural Montana. Mason and fellow apostle Elder Stark are sent on a mission to convert new members, particularly women, in order to prevent the slow death of their faith. The two go on a road trip that eventually lands them in the ski town of Snowshoe Springs, Colorado where Elder Stark is instructed to try and land the support of a dying millionaire, while Mason finds himself falling in love with a secretive young woman with a passion for fashion. Along the way the two apostles discover the pains and pleasures of caffeine, greasy food, and sex with underage girls.
Mission to America is something of a mixed bag. The first chapter is speedy. Kirn sets up the plot with ease. It bares mentioning that Kirn is a writer who has mastered the art of the hook. He knows how to pique a reader’s interest with each sentence and it is this talent which moves the first chapter along so smoothly.
But between the second and sixth chapters there’s a lull. Kirn documents Mason and Stark’s journey to Colorado where the primary action of the story will take place. During their travels both men begin to indulge in fast food and stimulants. Stark picks up a drug habit. There’s an interlude with a group of teenage Wiccans in Wyoming. There are two reasons these 63 pages slow down the narrative; 1) The changes the men go through in this brief period are told rather than shown to the reader. Chapter two picks up after the duo have already been on the road for a week and Mason tells the reader how many of their religious beliefs have been thrown out the window during that time. This makes the transformation jarring and, when compared with the piousness displayed in chapter 1, a bit unbelievable. 2) The incidents we do witness during this time are unnecessary to the development of the characters and trajectory of the story. What little character development occurs during these scenes could have easily been incorporated into later ones. It left me wondering why, when Kirn thought it better to skip over their first week on the road, he thought the boring tryst with the Wiccans was worth including?
Once in Colorado the boys meet a range of self-involved and eccentric characters whose lives and beliefs test their own religious convictions. What got under my skin at this stage was the realization that Mason, the narrator, wasn’t a very interesting character. Compared to Weaver Walquist, the evangelical protagonist of She Needed Me, or even orally fixated Justin Cobb of Thumbsucker, Mason is a blank slate. He has virtually no personality. I don’t know if that was a deliberate choice Kirn made to highlight the whitewashing effect of fundamentalist religious belief, but it just doesn’t make for very interesting reading. I think I would have probably given up on the novel at this point had the more colorful characters not shown up.
As the story progresses Mason comes to find out that the mission he thought he was sent on is not the mission he was actually sent on. Kirn takes a magnifying glass to the cogs of religion and how they move in a culture of consumerism. He is clearly making a statement with this book, one that can be viewed through many lenses. While reading I kept coming up with ideas for research paper I could have written if I’d read this back in college; an examination of Mason’s misogynistic beliefs and attitudes and what Kirn is saying about the damaging aspects of woman centered religion; A discussion on whether or not there is a distinction between religion and big business these days. There are enough ideas in this novel to spark a landslide of academic papers. Unfortunately, academically rich texts don’t always make for wonderful recreational reads.
While the second half of the book did hold my interest, that alone wasn’t enough to grip my imagination and really make me enjoy this book, and it pains me to say that since I adore Walter Kirn so much. Unfortunately, this book left a lot to be desired and I regret to say that I can’t precisely put my finger on what was missing. I think it just lacked heart. It is difficult to engage a reader in such a heady and esoteric topic as religion without offering him or her some sympathetic characters to invest in. This novel offered nothing to become invested in. Kirn has tackled the idea of religious disillusionment, dependency, and vehemence far more eloquently in his previous novels. Look to them for the spark that Mission to America lacks.