Executive Times

 

 

 

 

 

2005 Book Reviews

 

Mission to America by Walter Kirn

 

Rating: (Mildly Recommended)

 

 

 

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Isolation

 

At times, Walter Kirn’s new novel, Mission to America, is funny, satiric, and enjoyable. At other times, the characters seem stale, one-dimensional and the plot becomes boring. A religious sect, the Aboriginal Fulfilled Apostles (AFA), isolated in Bluff, Montana, has soaked up its gene pool and sends two missionaries to the America outside Bluff, which they call “Terrestria,” to find converts to bring home to Bluff. Kirn’s own isolated family was converted by door-to-door Mormon missionaries, and some of the better parts of this novel probably draw on that experience. Predictably, the young missionaries become distracted by some of the alluring aspects of Terrestria. At his best, Kirn profiles characters with precision and catches some details that are pitch perfect. Unfortunately, the characters fail to develop enough for readers to care much about what happens to them. Here’s an excerpt, from Chapter Two, pp. 35-42:

 

Even after seven days in the van, my partner and I were still learning about America. The Church’s founders had called the place “Terrestria,” refusing at first to vote in its elections, supply troops for its armies, or recognize its currency, and though they capitulated in 1913 in a bid to escape imprisonment, Bluff had remained a world apart. As schoolkids, as part of a secret cur­riculum we were forbidden to mention to nonmembers, we’d learned to refer to our incorporation as “the Arrangement” and think of it as temporary, lasting only until that fateful day when Terrestria succumbed to chaos and the Apostles were left to sift through the wreckage and usher in the New Edenic Covenant foretold by Mother Lucy. Elder Stark felt this day might come during our mission and he’d joked that the prospect excited him because it would offer us a chance to loot, starting with the luxury-auto lots. Elder Stark wasn’t satisfied with the sluggish camper van that never seemed to shift out of second gear. He wanted a Range Rover with a V-8 like one we’d seen parked in Missoula our first day out.

“I’m eating your next-to-last wing,” he said. “Also, I’m switching to news. We need to pay more attention to the news.”

“Why is that?”

“The worse it gets, the better the chance they’ll give us a fair hearing.”

“That’s a mean thing to wish. The news is bad already.”

“It’s hard to tell. We don’t know what they’re used to.”

I pricked the plastic tube of whitener open with its pointed cap. The instruction sheet promised results that you could see in only fourteen days, but I hoped to cut this to seven by applying a thick double coating. I couldn’t wait two weeks. Women who struck me as fine potential mates were already passing me by without a look. They seemed to sense it when I looked at them, though, and yesterday one had reached into her bag as if for some instrument of self-defense.

“They’re broadcasting a hostage difficulty. Texas clinic. Dis­gruntled young male nurse. The SWAT team, whatever they call it, has bulletproof breastplates and some kind of scope or cam­era that sees through walls. Watch this thing with me.”

“Once I’m done in here.”

“Should I whiten my teeth, too?”

“That’s up to you.”

“Why don’t I stay natural and you go whiter and whoever has more luck in meeting people, he’ll be the leader. We need to choose a leader.”

“You go ahead. You’re older.”

“You’re clearer headed.”

Elder Stark was being disingenuous. He knew that he’d been in command since we set out and that he had no intention of yielding power. How he’d assumed control I wasn’t certain. I only knew that the first time we’d bought gasoline he’d insisted on premium, for better mileage, and that was that—the pattern was set. Next he was pointing out which passersby we should try to talk into taking the Well-being Quiz and which ones we should allow to meet their fates.

“My mom had a man she counseled who took a hostage once. He dreamed it before he did it,” Elder Stark said. “He tied ‘in his wife with twisted plastic trash bags to keep her from leaving him for another man, then locked her in a shed behind the house while his neighbors searched the woods. After a week he set her free and she refused to report him. They’re still together. That tying her up with trash bags did the trick.”

“This happened in Bluff? I never heard a word.”

“It happened when we were little. You’ve heard of ‘angel babies’?”

“Never.”

“They’re the newborns who don’t come out right. The Church owns a house in Spokane where people care for them. Big heads. Short arms. Stubby fingers. Angel babies.”

“Stop it.”

“I heard about them through the wall.”

“You make stuff up,” I said. “It isn’t that funny. A lot of it’s danged disgusting.”

“Say it: ‘damned.’”

When he bantered this way, out of sight, without direction, I knew what Elder Stark was really doing. He’d unhitched his belt. One hand was in his underwear. It had happened after lights-out in the van on our second night and again the follow­ing night. I’d done it, too. An agreement took shape. We could carry on as we pleased in our own bunks as long as we spared each other the sights and sounds.

I dipped a small wand into the plastic tube, drew back my lips so they wouldn’t spread saliva, and covered my incisors and bicuspids with a layer of bleachy-tasting gel. The tooth dis­coloration was due to diet, and particularly the “strong diges­tives” such as anise jelly and sweetened pine pitch that we took after heavy fatty meals. The results of this regimen, for me and others, were clear, unusually elastic skin, urine that sometimes smelled strongly of burning leaves, and tooth enamel scored by hairline etchings that I feared were the beginnings of ruinous cracks. Eating as Adam was thought to have was perilous, but at least it warded off the bloating that I was suffering from that night.

“They’re saying there’s no sign of life inside the clinic. It’s over. The SWAT team is taking off its breastplates. I feel like we should go back to the lobby and give that poor girl with the cross another chance.”

“This stuff needs to sit on my teeth for fifteen minutes.”

“Shiny beautiful teeth look strange on men. That blond guy in Bozeman—the one who bought us coffee and said we could stay anytime in his spare room—his teeth were so white they were almost clear, like glass.”

“I’ll stop before that.”

“Come watch with me. I’m lonesome.”

“So sleep, then. Turn it off.”

“I can’t,” he said. “I’m lonesome without it. I don’t know how that happened.”

“I do.”

“How?”

“It’s hard to put it into words. You forget how quiet it was before, or something. The quiet scared you, but you didn’t know it. After you turn off the screen, you know it, though.”

“We’ve never turned it off.”

“It’s a prediction.”

Lonesomeness was a problem with Elder Stark. I’d known him before as a schoolmate and a Church friend but I’d only grown close to him during the last few training seminars, after we’d moved into Lauer’s house so we could spend more time practicing being Person One. I’d learned that my new friend couldn’t sleep in stretches longer than two hours due to nightmares, and sometimes, in the middle of the night, waking up on my bunk in the makeshift basement dormitory, I’d hear him sucking cough drops or crunching almonds as though trying to drown out troubling thoughts. A few times I heard him talking to himself in a croaky old man’s voice. I got the tones and the rhythms but not the words. When I asked Elder Stark about this in the morning his face tightened up and he told me I’d been dreaming. A few hours later he confessed, “The Hobo paid me a visit. He keeps me company. Was he being critical or kind?” I told him the voice sounded very faintly critical and asked him what the Hobo looked like, afraid to ask him how real the Hobo was.

“He wears an old floppy hat. It shades his face. I made him up when I was five or six to look in a barn I was scared of going into for a cat I’d lost.”

“The Hobo went in and you stayed outside?” I said.

“No. He made fun of me for being scared until I had some­thing to prove. We went together. Afterward, he clapped me on the back and I felt prouder than I ever had, so I asked him to stay. He promised to pop in sometimes. My mother told me when I was twelve, once I was old enough to understand, that I didn’t really invent him, either. She used to see him standing over my crib. The same floppy hat. You probably have one, too. She told me most boys in Bluff do.”

“I don’t have one.”

“Maybe a sea pirate or a cattle rustler?”

“Why are these types all vagabonds or crooks? Do they have to be?”

“They just always are.”

I let the gel dry and watched the nighttime interstate out the recessed, cell-like bathroom window. Each car and truck repre­sented another soul out of reach of our influence, lost to its true nature. Growing up, it had always bothered me how easily we consigned non-AFAs to lives of dissatisfaction and insignifi­cance. The universe pivoted on our heads solely, even though we’d just recently organized ourselves. The older I grew and the more I read, the more confusing it all seemed. How could a set­tlement tucked up in the woods at the edge of the power grid and the zip code system have a bigger lever to shift history than the millions of people who voted for the government, farmed the Great Plains, and administered the markets?

“How white are they?” Elder Stark asked me from the bed­room. His voice had brightened; he must have finished his busi­ness. With me it took forever, but he was quick.

I bared my teeth in the mirror: no improvement. Besides a nice smile, I wanted some other things. A suntan that didn’t end partway up my arms and at my collar line. Hair that poked up a little, or puffed out, and didn’t just lie sideways and dead flat. My mother had always told me I was handsome, and compared to the boys in Bluff I might have been, but within a few hours of leaving I discovered that they weren’t much to judge by. Framed in the windshields of the cars we passed were young male heads so symmetrical and pleasing I feared that Lauer had underestimated the degradation of our physical stock. My partner showed no sign of such concerns, though, and I couldn’t very well bring them up without insulting his own appearance.

“No whiter,” I said.

“I’m glad I didn’t bother then.”

“You’re supposed to be patient. It’s a gradual change.”

“Maybe I’ll reconsider if I notice it. Right now, my brother, I think you bought a lie.”

There were still a few things to do before I slept. The training course had taught us to end our days by swallowing a one-ounce dropper of filbert oil as prescribed in our six-page man­ual, “The Alchemy of Evangelism,” which also included a recipe for mouthwash made of melon-rind juice and muckweed pulp. The nut oil was thought to condition our vocal cords and cause them to resonate at secret frequencies that listeners would find calming and appealing. The next step was to gargle with the mouthwash, which was said to ward off canker sores. Finally, we were told to shut our eyes for a five- or ten-minute Thought Re­treat during which we were urged to picture a belt of pink radi­ation swaddling the earth and neutralizing its poisons and malignancies.

I sat on the edge of the tub and did the exercise. It had orig­inated forty years ago in response to a pleading letter to the Seeress—the current Seeress’s predecessor, who we called Swift Aunt Patricia, because we rename them when they’re dead so we don’t confuse them with the reigning ones—from the Peru­vian Minister of Health, a secret longtime subscriber to Lumi­naria, the monthly AFAjournal of ideas that our leaders hinted was widely read, in secret, by enlightened powerful outsiders. According to the minister’s letter, northern Peru had recently been identified as the source of an epidemic, ROGA, rapid on­set gonadal atrophy, which had sterilized hundreds of young men in the Lima slums. The bug or germ behind the outbreak was mutating too quickly for vaccines and might soon cross the border into Bolivia. Could Swift Aunt Patricia offer help or guidance?

That very day, the story went, she sent her staff home early, fed her birds, and shut herself up in the Blossom Room of Riverbright, the turreted official residence that Mother Lucy had sketched while she lay dying but failed to render the rear side of, causing its builders to leave it flat and windowless be­cause early Apostles were strict abstainers from what Discourses calls the Bridegroom’s Folly, defined as trying to guess another’s desires in the absence of unmistakable evidence. (We grew less stringent about this as the years passed.) She prayed in the time-honored manner of her office, kneeling on an unplaned cedar plank, her feet unshod, her right palm open and up, her left palm flat across her forehead. After three sleepless days and several Etheric Contacts with Lom-Bard-Ok-Thon, the virility entity of the Pyramids, Swift Aunt Patricia discerned a trembling radiance around the globe atop her desk. The glow turned rose-colored, intensified, and hovered over South Amer­ica as the Blossom Room warmed to ninety-nine degrees (or, as in my grandmother’s account, was whipped by a sudden, fierce cyclonic draft that stripped its houseplants bare of leaves). Exactly four months later, under the spring moon we know as Snake Emergence, another letter came in which the minister confirmed the miracle: Peru was whole. The plague had ceased.

Such stories were hard to credit, yet I cherished them. What I couldn’t imagine was telling them to strangers, even though I had little else to offer them. Ours was a church of tales, I’d come to realize, and we accorded anecdotes and gossip a higher place than formal doctrine, which we didn’t really trust. It was no wonder our movement had failed to spread. Unless you grew up with us, soaking up the lore, how could you hope to understand or join us? 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.

 

Religious satire can be particularly hard to pull off in our pluralistic society. The clash of cultures that Kirn presents in Mission to America looks like everyday life in those parts of America that are not isolated. Whether Mission to America appeals to you or not may well depend on both your religious orientation, if any, and your interaction with those with strongly divergent religious views.

 

Steve Hopkins, November 21, 2005

 

 

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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the December 2005 issue of Executive Times

 

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