When The Village Voice sent Walter Kirn to Montana several years ago to research a survivalist cult group, they didn’t know he would drive past Yellowstone National Park in a rental car and decide to trade in New York for Livingston. Aside from his move, what the trip ultimately led to was Kirn writing a novel based on a fictitious religious cult living in a tiny haven called Bluff, Montana. Released earlier this month, Kirn’s fifth work of fiction represents (and let’s just get this out of the way now) some of his finest work yet; so enjoyable is Mission to America that even a pretentious and slightly bitchy 20-something feels a little hampered in having to review it.
These days Kirn is enjoying the kind of success other writers dream of. Not only has Mission to America just come out from Doubleday, but also Sony Classics has released the film version of Thumbsucker, Kirn’s second novel, starring Keanu Reeves and Vincent D’Onofrio. One can safely assume that Kirn is being wined and dined—quite literally—from coast to coast.
With this in mind, perhaps it’s ironic that Mason LaVerle, Mission’s narrator, is as isolated from the world as Kirn himself is urbanely in touch with it. Born in Bluff and reared on the tenets of the Aboriginal Fulfilled Apostles (AFA)—Bluff’s matriarchal religion consisting of about two-thirds New Age rhetoric and one-third Amish ideology—Mason stands on the brink of radical revolution within the tiny community. Like the health of their ancient leader, the Seeress, the AFA is in rapid decline. In addition to a dwindling population, AFA members have become so inbred that many of the young children don’t seem “quite right.” Characterized by a specialized cleansing diet called Edenic Nutritional Science (“Disease begins in the gut, the duodenum, and death is a matter of sluggish peristalsis—that’s the great key to Edenic Nutritional Science. Our bowels should work ceaselessly, not just at intervals.”) and a modified barter system called the Virtue Code that honors good deeds in the same way as cash (represented by Virtue Coupons), the Apostles still need to attract new members to their dying community. When a male coalition sets out on a heroic mission to lure a few brown-eyed, dark-haired brides to Bluff, Mason takes his first steps into that vulgar world called America:
“And so, for the first time since we came together one hundred and forty-seven years earlier, and in violation of our traditions of silence, modesty, and isolation, we gathered a party to go down out of the hills and mount, at long last, a mission to America.”
In his early days, Kirn had initially wanted to write poetry and though he has since remained loyal to prose, he lends a poet’s sensitivity to Mason’s darkly comic narration. With an otherworldly, almost cavernous tone to his voice, Mason slowly becomes aware of just how much he is a stranger in his own land: “The deer that I saw come to drink there seemed stiff and slow, with none of the flickering nervousness of healthy deer, and on the evening of our second day there I asked the attendant if we could take a new spot, away from the water, closer to the hills. I immediately felt better, with clearer sinuses and a sense that my food was on the move again.”
After just a few days, Mason and his partner dismantle a lifetime of intestinal purity on chicken wings and Dr. Pepper and come close to exhausting their funds on over-the-counter products, like tooth whitening gel, “whose labels made claims I was powerless not to test.” When they realize that proselytizing in malls and dressing like Mormons isn’t attracting potential brides, they head for a Colorado ski town where a suicidal television actress becomes their first convert.
In Snowshoe Springs, the two young men become missionary fixtures. Though doubt encumbers their own wills, Mason and his partner continue to send out AFA’s un-American message of simplicity and well-being. While his partner becomes a kind of personal maharishi to a corrupt billionaire hindered by guilt and an extreme case of irritable bowel syndrome, Mason himself falls desperately in love with a young woman who used to pose for Internet porn sites. Meanwhile, the impending death of the Seeress back in Bluff paves the way for an un-Apostle-like coup de tat.
With the down-to-earth, yet incisive acuity for which he is best known, Kirn has ghostwritten the autobiography of a hardened warrior. If Kirn himself is by Montana out of New York, then Mason LaVerle is just the opposite: born from Bluff, yet reared on the cynical disappointment of urban America. His, though, is a disappointment that awakens; Mason’s dyspepsia is of a kind that actually energizes. And in an ending both troubling and tender, Mission to America joins two very different worlds with sardonic humor and dead-on accuracy. It is an ending that settles down deep in a refreshingly satisfying way.
Walter Kirn appears at Fact & Fiction for a reading and signing of Mission to America Friday, Oct. 21, at 7 PM.