Walter Kirn—whose second novel, Thumbsucker, has just been adapted for the screen and is in theaters now—begins his new novel with an ending: Mason Plato LaVerle is leaving home. LaVerle—along with his partner, Elder Stark—is heading out from his small religious community of Bluff, Montana, on a mission to collect more members for his dwindling Church of the Aboriginal Fulfilled Apostles. LaVerle, a young man who breaks up with his Church-appointed girlfriend on the eve of his trip, has never much ventured outside of Bluff, and neither he nor Stark quite know what to expect from the modern world that awaits them.
Kirn’s previous novel was the funny and perceptive Up in the Air, where he managed to create a perfect mix of Sedaris-like wit with the consumer dread of Don DeLillo’s classic White Noise. That novel skewered and satirized contemporary society perfectly, and in Mission to America Kirn seems to be on the same path, positioning LaVerle as a modern-day Candide, an innocent commenting on the absurdities on everyday life. But instead, after just a few chapters that wring minimal charm out of the combination fish-out-of-water/on-the-road scenario, the novel stalls in a Colorado ski town. In the end, LaVerle and Stark’s grand “mission to America” reaches only a handful of states, and the story dead ends in a convoluted soap opera that’s neither plausible nor interesting (and I could forgive one it was the other).
The novel’s main problem is that Kirn lacks the right touch for this kind of material. Vonnegut could have worked wonders with the story, weaving his wonderful clipped sentences and repeated catchphrases throughout the novel so that the characters would have had at least a mantra if not an inner life. But instead, Kirn—normally a fiercely intelligent writer—dwells on a succession of mind-numbing minutiae, none of which propel the story. For instance, in describing Virtue Coupons, the currency of LaVerle’s former community, the details are piled high but don’t add up to much: “They were larger than dollars, lavender not green, and the picture inside the central oval seal was of a mourning dove sunning on a branch.” Kirn probably has fun with these various details, but they’re mostly lost on the reader, the same way that it’s been said live jazz is more fun for the musicians on stage to play than it is for the listeners in the audience.
The myriad of meaningless details are also imbedded into the fabric of the story itself, Kirn continuing to think he’s adding richness when instead it’s just a lot of stuff that’s supposed to mean something but usually doesn’t. At one point, a character’s back story is fleshed out with cheap exposition such as, “He’d been at fault in a drunken auto accident which he’d avoided prosecution for because the people he hurt were Mexican peach pickers driving an unlicensed truck without insurance coverage.” What’s supposed to make this real, or even interesting? Is the fact that they were peach pickers supposed to be some sort of significant detail, the karmic icing on the cake, or is it just Kirn’s way of spicing things up? And is he trying to stave off his boredom, or ours?
Despite everything in the novel that doesn’t work—and most of it doesn’t—Kirn is still a smart author who manages to slip in the occasional spot-on observation, such as LaVerle’s thoughts when he’s having a conversation with someone: “Then he stopped [talking]. He didn’t pause—he stopped. A pause means the person has something more to say.” However, these brief interludes don’t come close to saving Mission to America; it’s a mission you’d do best not to accept.
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