The Book Club

Walter Kirn’s Religious Separatists

Every now and then, Slate departs from our standard Book Club format (in which two critics discuss a new book) by asking one of our critics to interrogate the author of the book in question and allowing the author to respond. This week, Stephen Metcalf will correspond with Walter Kirn, a book review critic for the New York Times, and the author of the recent Mission to America.

So utterly delightful is Mission to America, reviewing it almost seemed beside the point. (This is that rare occasion I’ve closed a book and am not filled with rage, despair, quibbles, or reflux, just that lightheaded bereavement at having no more of a good novel to read.) I’ll try to keep the genuflecting here to a seemly minimum, but this is the most fun I’ve had with contemporary American fiction for a long time, maybe since Wonder Boys. I have many questions for you, but to orient the reader, I’ll first describe the book and then do some lengthy quoting.

Mission to America tells the story Mason Plato Laverle and Elder Stark, two young men who have grown up in a community of religious separatists known as the Aboriginal Fulfilled Apostles. In one sense, Mason and Elder, like Shakers or the Amish or Mormons or even Scientologists, are ur-Americans, pure products of our weird open spaces. In another sense, they’re totally un-American: They have never watched television, eaten junk food, or commingled with an outside world known only to Apostles as “Terrestria.” With their numbers dwindling rapidly and a century of inbreeding now commonly producing freaks, the flock sends Mason and Elder out into Terrestria to proselytize, and if possible, to return with fecund women. Having sincerely adored this novel, I think I can be honest here and admit that I worried when I heard the premise. Har har, I thought, waiting (in vain, it turned out) for the by-the-numbers satire of Innocence Lost in Fast Food Nation. No such satire ever emerged, and some quoting will immediately alert the reader as to why.

Here is the description of Mason and Elder’s early experience in “Snowshoe Springs,” an affluent Telluride-like redoubt for the wayward, the rich, and especially the wayward rich:

As we rode through the streets in the morning, we waved at people, especially the younger women, and once in a while one of them smiled back at us. Most of the women struck us as remote, though. Their faces were hard and windburned. They carried water bottles. Their calves showed carpentered edges as they walked and their throat muscles shifted sharply when they spoke, as if separately manufacturing each word. It was hard to imagine them pregnant, though many were. The fetuses rode up high in firm round capsules that gave the impression of being detachable from their mothers’ bodies, like the seats that un-hooked from the mighty eight-wheeled strollers they stuck the kids into after they were born so that they could be carried into restaurants and stowed beneath the tables.

I think the proper critical term for the above is: mad skillz, yo. What keeps the predictable novel I thought might be coming forever and totally at bay is the sheer cleverness of the author of this one, and an astute decision on his part, which was to make Mason, the book’s narrator, nobody’s fool. He’s not some westerly minstrel act, with his starchy clothes and a stack of preposterously esoteric tracts on human digestion. Instead, Mason is a normal kid, attached as naturally as the rest of us to the horizons of his childhood but beckoned by the wider world. By not making up Mason’s voice into a Huck Finn ventriloquist act, Mission to America never turned into the topical checklist I thought might be coming. This is instead an acutely observed fable. By way of example, when Mason and Elder finally make an inroad with some Terrestrians—a small coven of Wiccan hotties still, it turns out to Mason’s growing alarm, in their learner’s permit years—you give us a line of dialogue that encloses within it a world: “I have to go pick up my stepdad from drunk-driving class.”

Everyone will call this book a “satire.” It is not a satire. Simply put, its plot is too strong, its emotional topographies too rich and varied. Let me fill the reader in a little more, then I’ll pepper you with some questions. Mason and Elder make their way into the tenuous graces of a rich, Ted Turner-like gazillionaire named Effingham. Having finally fed himself on simple carbs and network TV, Elder has warmed to Terrestria in vaguely sinister ways: He has a plan to try to convert “Eff, Sr.” and so separate him from his money; this may, in turn, be tied to a plot to undo the legacy of the Apostles altogether. I can’t do this justice without making plain: The book works because the simple nostalgic rectitude Mason feels for his own childhood place isn’t silly or overdone. In fact, it’s touching and believable; that Elder, in conspiracy with a craven Dale Carnegie-type named Lauer, might destroy the Apostles comes across as genuinely sad.

OK, enough summary and genuflecting. Here’s what I know about you, Mr. Kirn: You write for the Times Book Review and some glossies, and a few years back, gave up the New York media biosphere to move to Montana. I’m curious about your own processes of discovery and self-discovery having made that move, because no way this novel could have been written without the starkness of your own transition serving as its backdrop. Also, I need to know: Your literary celebrity has deservedly risen in recent years. Have you found yourself in the vapid but somehow narcotic company of the rootless rich, and their various hangers-on? I ask because the descriptions of the Effinghams and their world are so apt, they seem to have emerged from some field work on your part. And also: Am I right? The word “satire” seems completely wrong to me. The book isn’t nearly flat enough for that label to properly affix.