- Mission To America
- Doubleday, 271 pp.
Walter Kirn’s Mission to America has a confused, nearly schizophrenic, personality, which isn’t necessarily a negative. At times the book is brilliantly and sharply humorous. At other times the narrative becomes a bogged down, examine-my-psychological navel boor ala the mundanely crazy TV ditz Dr. Phil, though several major differences are quickly apparent in this comparison – Kirn is honest, intelligent and talented. Oprah’s boy is none of these.
The hero of our disturbed story is Mason LeVerle, a young man on a mission to America to convert the uninitiated to the dwindling number of Aboriginal Fulfilled Apostles, a sect-like band of Amish-like loners who languish in a remote Montana town far out on the northern high plains. The group is a matriarchal, not-quite-Christian, New Age overtoned bunch that keeps a wide distance from mainstream USA, all things being as they are, not a bad idea. Mason is sent on an outreach mission with another young man, Elder Alias Stark, to bring back converts – mainly brides to augment the increasingly inbred nature of the Aboriginal flock. The pair strikes out in a van and along the way they proselytize at malls, passing out leaflets in parking garages based on the condition of the cars and the bumper stickers attached to them. They finally arrive in a glitzy Colorado ski town that could be Aspen or Vail. Mason meets a young woman who used to pose on internet porn sites, and Stark becomes the guru-in-residence for a guilt-laden billionaire with chronic bowl complaints. Meanwhile back on the home front in Big Sky country, the Apostles are facing schism and extinction as their beloved leader, the Seeress, glides towards death. Things escalate and twist driving Mason towards personal crisis and possibly madness.
All of this is interesting in its own right, but what makes Kirn’s work intriguing and at times unique is his highly-visible, wickedly tortured and humorous perspective on life. Anyone who has ever seen the poor guy sweat and stagger through a reading with a blood thirsty audience laying odds and taking bets on when he will have a grand mal nervous breakdown (readings are tortures Kirn absolutely refuses to participate in anymore) or has read My Hard Bargain or She Needed Me will appreciate the turmoil and effort life brings to bear on Kirn and his writing. Sometimes in his books it appears that the vicissitudes of living are too much for him to bear.
Kirn has published four books of fiction prior to Mission to America, and is a contributing editor to Time and GQ. He contributes regularly to the New York Times Book Review and his work has appeared in Vogue, New York and Esquire. He lives in my hometown of Livingston and is even more reclusive than I am. Over the past ten years I’ve seen him out in public twice – at a reading and wandering swiftly down Main Street one autumn afternoon. He was once arrested for failing to mow his yard for months, and is chiefly responsible for our old post office remaining in operation downtown despite the efforts of the USPS head drones in D.C.. He accomplished this through the use of his editorial connections back east that led to articles about the plight of the venerable edifice leading to too much heat for the Washington bureaucrats who quickly shelved the dismantling plans. In other words, Kirn is a classic Livingston resident – talented, an isolationist and a bit crazy.
Here’s an example of what I consider the unengaging Kirn where he writes of Mason’s relationship with a young lass in Colorado:
“Whatever was going to happen to the two of us was happening already, experimentally, but so were all the things that wouldn’t happen, and the trick was to feel each one as it swept by and not to fight the feelings or try to hold them. We had no influence. Fate deals only with fate. But because we’d already lived through what would come for us, if only obscurely, we’d accept it when it did.”
Psycho-babble and gibberish that advances the story two steps to nowhere. But then, like a cool wind whipping through smog-choked Denver there’s the good Walter Kirn as in this riff dealing with a kept writer named Edward who’s crazy as a loon. He lives on the Colorado billionaire’s estate at no cost other than his self-respect and sanity:
“I granted Edward the dignity of revealing himself when he felt ready. He wore gray slacks but nothing else, and his bare chest and forearms were marred by inky doodles and little blocks of minutely lettered text. He looked like a living truckstop men’s room wall, only hairier, with a sprinkling of pink moles. His navel was the smallest I’d ever seen, just a dimple in his starved pale belly. It served as the nose in a frowning round face he’d drawn under a crescent moon that also had features, including a nipple for an eye.”
Kirn at his best is as witty and funny as anyone. When he delves into the psycho dramas of his characters and probably his own life, things bog down and take a turn for the dreary. For the good stuff laced here and there throughout his manuscripts, he’s always worth reading. Maybe someday one of his books will be nothing but good stuff. That would be something.
John Holt and his wife, photographer Ginny Holt, are currently finishing up a pair of related books – “Yellowstone Drift: Floating the Past in Real-Time” (to be published by AK Press in February 2009) and “Searching For Native Color – Fly Fishing for Cutthroat Trout.” John’s work has appeared in publications that include “Men’s Journal,” “Fly Fisherman,” “Fly Rod and Reel,” “The Angling Report,” “American Angler,” “The Denver Post,” “Audubon,” “Briarpatch,” “counterpunch.org,” “Travel and Leisure,” “Art of Angling Journal,” “E – The Environmental Magazine,” “Field and Stream,” “Outside,” “Rolling Stone,” “Gray’s Sporting Journal” and “American Cowboy.” Chesapeake Bay Bridge