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Fighting for market share of the American soul

Mission to America
By Walter Kirn
Doubleday, 271 pp., $23.95

Mix the ideologies of a new-age feminist collective with a doctrinaire nutritional movement. Toss in some smatterings of Native American spirituality and a pinch of Amish isolationism. The resulting stew might just approximate the Aboriginal Fulfilled Apostles (AFA) of Walter Kirn's amusing new novel, ''Mission to America."

Isolated in the hinterlands of Bluff, Mont., this 147-year-old sect is steeped in a diverse array of traditions. Living off the beaten path of American progress, they ''approve of many, many, things." Generally speaking it's a matriarchy. The men mine talc, the women run society. Both genders avoid bleached white flour like it was SARS on a stick and subsist on a diet of bland white fish. They're deeply committed to their colonic well-being.

Divine judgments are handed down by ''the Seeress," a matriarch who's not to be confused with the Wal-Mart-ish-sounding supreme deity, called the ''All-in-One." Dissent is neither encouraged nor suppressed, and traditions range from a designated sexual tryst for young couples (the ''Sanctified Midsummer Frolic") to the practice of ''Edenic Nutritional Science."

Despite the comforts of an encompassing ideology, the AFA's prospects are anything but certain. Prophesies that strangers would flock to its remote corner in search of enlightenment never bore fruit. As a result, Bluff's population has shrunk and its genetic stock is, well -- insert your banjo-twanging, backwoods stereotypes here. What's more, the AFA's power elite won't discuss it. As Mason LaVerle, Kirn's less than enthusiastic narrator, puts it: ''We needed new blood. We needed wives and mothers. We needed a few brown eyes among our offspring, more dark curly hair, and less inherited color blindness."

Filling the reality vacuum is Bluff's closest thing to a celebrity or, for that matter, a patriarch. Ennis Lauer won his notoriety on a TV endurance contest called ''Grit!" His fame translated into finances, which enabled him to sponsor a ''mission" to ''Terrestria," AFA-speak for the country beyond Bluff. For this daunting task he taps Mason and one Elder Elias Stark. Their goal is to spread the word and, more pointedly, return home with new blood.

An immediate problem is that Mason is a terrible missionary. What kind of evangelist so readily confesses that however charming it might be to him, his faith is really not fit for public consumption? ''It was all so sloppy, so disheveled, a huge loose stack of fables and fourth-hand yarns clipped to a modest sheaf of creeds with a lot of health advice tossed in."

Decked out Mormon-style with white button-downs, dark slacks, and shoes from the lower rung of Payless, these fellows could barely sell you on secular humanism, much less an anchoritic cult with bad food. Why Mason is chosen for this mission is a rather contrived plot point that discretion prevents me from delving into. Suffice it to say, his skepticism coupled with a dismaying curiosity about the America he's now encountering makes him an ideal tour-guide narrator.

The mission that's bound to fail . . . does. Not long after crossing into Wyoming -- a place Mason describes as ''punishment for having eyes" -- they give in to the ''fine phantasms" of Terrestria. Mason deflowers an underage wiccan, while Elder starts experimenting with methamphetamines. Without really trying, the two begin making up for all that their upbringing has denied them: reality TV, espresso beverages, and sex.

At his best, Kirn renders the experience of encountering American mass culture from the unique perspective of an insider's outsider. Mason's previous exposure to Terrestrian culture came through a discarded game of Trivial Pursuit. He's intrigued, if not always enchanted, by the new world around him.

Following Lauer's orders to curry favor among the rich, Mason and Elder make their way to Snowshoe Springs, an Aspen-style playpen for ruthless scions, declining starlets, and aspiring bobsledders. They soon find themselves regarded as exotics, conversation pieces for the local glitterati.

In short order the mission begins working in reverse. Mason falls for an ex-Internet porn star while Elder quite willingly becomes the lackey cum digestive consultant for an elderly tycoon with bowel issues. In the rush to access the rich and famous, they abandon their first and only convert to live on a compound so vast it can accommodate the reintroduction of an entire wildlife species.

''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. Witness this gem: ''I killed the afternoon watching what Elder Stark and I called 'squealing shows,' in which people whose lust for Comparison had caused them to grow discontented with their clothing and furniture were showered with new things they weren't yet sick of."

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.

John Dicker is the author of ''The United States of Wal-Mart." He lives in Denver.

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