Walter Kirn: Mission To America

Walter Kirn: Mission To America

Juxtaposition can bring to light the invisible assumed logic of encrusted familiarity. Seen through the eyes of an alien observer, 21st-century American life becomes a roller coaster of absurd surfaces, bereft of the explanations and history that make it feel so natural to its inhabitants. Walter Kirn's Mission To America adds the wide-eyed certainty of religious conviction to this brother-from-another-planet scenario in an attempt to lampoon the shallow spiritual neediness of the rich and strange. But its comic ambitions fit uneasily with its freak-show characters. By the middle chapters, even the rich premise—"Shakers in Aspen"—falls away, leaving only a halfhearted rant at an overvilified target.

Mason, the narrator, belongs to a reclusive Christian sect, the Aboriginal Fulfilled Apostles, which has been living for generations according to strict nutritional guidelines in a closed community in Montana. The specter of inbreeding leads a rich member (the winner of a reality game show) to mount a mission to the outside world, what the AFA call "Terrestria," to make converts that can bring new genetic material into the group or, failing that, might leave ranches and trust funds to the church when they die. At first, Mason and his companion share their message at truck stops and motels, when they aren't gorging on forbidden foodstuffs like chicken wings and espresso. But their mentor guides them toward wealthy rancher Errol Effingham Sr. and his hangers-on and sycophants, whom they join in angling for the Effingham fortune.

Kirn's characters speak in the pseudo-openness of psychobabble; they seem thoroughly in touch with themselves and willing to open up to anyone, but their speech is all telegraph-staccato emotional buzzwords. At the same time, his prose sometimes somnambulates, sending the action into subterranean mode. At times, it's possible to reach the middle of a paragraph before registering that a punch was thrown in the first sentence. The combination results in stream-of-consciousness first-person narration with little realistic introspection, whitewater rapids of dialogue that hustle past the details of characterization and plot, and an overreliance on pop-culture references and brand names, seemingly as a substitute for humor. Kirn juxtaposes two extremes that fail to enlighten each other, and leaves the vast, recognizable middle—the setting and people that invigorated his previous novels, Thumbsucker and Up In The Air—watching on the sidelines.

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