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Mission Impossible

Last October, when it was reviewed in the New York Times Book Review, I declared that I'd read Walter Kirn's Mission to America "no matter what Paul Gray's review made of it."

Then I forgot all about it. What reminded me was Mr Kirn's priceless review of Harvey C Mansfield's Manliness.

I'm not entirely sure that I actually read Paul Gray's review of Mission To America. The reason for my enthusiasm was Up In The Air, Mr Kirn's previous novel. In that book, a road warrior flies about the American West, desperate to close a deal while clocking up the miles. Ryan M Bingham is a character whom I'd have called snarky if I'd been familiar with the word at the time; he wants me to like him without caring much about whether he's really likeable. That puts him at a huge distance from Mason Plato LaVerle, the hero of Mission to America. Mason is sweet. He's genuinely well-intentioned, and he subscribes to much of the wisdom of the remote cult in which he was brought up. He wants life to be real, and he doesn't want to get stuck doing soulless things.

Mason comes from Bluff, Montana, a secluded community run by women who encourage their men to undertake demanding physical labor while they, the women, do the thinking. (The library, a ramshackle collection of books, is for "dandies" - homosexuals.) The wisdom of this arrangement might very well be what the novel sets out to establish. Mr Kirn knows, however, how to start on a satirical note, with extensive descriptions of the Aboriginal Fulfilled Apostles' rituals and - more important - its diet. The Apostles are most easily thought of as poetic pantheists with serious ideas about regular bowels, and in his choice of nomenclature Mr Kirn has produced a religious version of Outsider Art. We are invited to laugh, however, gently, at the AFA, and to laugh perhaps a little less gently at the mission of the title, which is to convert healthy young women to refresh the community's breeding stock. Nelson, as a handsome young man with a "modest advantage" in genital endowment, is recruited to the mission, and Mission to America is an account of his adventures.

The mission has been conceived by Ennis Lauer, an Apostle whom I rather pictured as Matthew McConaughey in one of his darker roles (Frailty, say). "We need to put some muscle on," he tells Mason, ominously. The missionaries fan out in pairs. Nelson has been matched with Elder Elias Stark - elder not so much in age as in position within the AFA framework.

His bristly stiff brown hair was more like beard hair than normal head hair and the chunks of gray in it didn't make him look mature, just troubled. His comma-shaped nostrils were the blackest I'd ever seen, as were the holes in his ears. His pupils, too. The impression was that the cavity of his skull was packed with some sort of infernal shadow matter - or maybe it held absolutely nothing and he operated on reflex, not higher thought.

This turns out to be a terrific introduction to a character who, once loose in "Terrestria," as the rest of the United States is known, will fall right off the AFA wagon, watching hours of television and eating greasy chicken wings. The only corruption that he passes on to Mason is a fondness for coffee, but even then, Mason limits himself to one a day. Elder Stark and Lauer are in constant cell phone contact, however, and Lauer seems to support Stark's approach to the mission, which quite soon morphs to the pursuit of a Big Donor. You can see where the mission is going so clearly that Mr Kirn need no more than drop a reassuring hint here and there. His interest, in any case, is not with the success of the mission. Even Mason senses early on that it's doomed. What interests Mr Kirn is the identification of Lauer's mission with the rough and reckless side of American masculinity. Lauer's "muscle" comment above is followed by,

This faith has turned into an endless ladies' tea party that starts with a prayer and closes with a sťance and accomplishes precisely nothing except to turn Tuesday into Wednesday and February into March. As long as the flowers bloom, they like to tell us. As long as our friend mister robin sings his songs. They're touched in the head, these women.

And the more palpable Lauer's intended coup becomes, the more sensible the whole AFA package seems to be.

It does not take too long for our missionaries to hook up with the Effinghams, Eff Sr and his son, Little Eff. Eff Sr is a media tycoon who made his money by illegally supplying Guatemalan laboratories with protected (not) primates for testing cosmetics and such. He is so deep into bullshit that it has quite lost its smell. As of to underscore their sanitized condition, the Effinghams have a huge spread above Snowshoe, Colorado (Aspen is not far away), where they've raised a herd of bison and (again, illegally) introduced a pack of wolves. Eff Sr is seriously ill (although ambulatory), and Little Eff, who smells of vanilla, spends his time seeing that his father's needs are seen to. In Little Eff, Mr Kirn has captured the rudderless industrial heir.

I helped myself to more wine as Little Eff opened the glass screen and asked the drive to watch out for elk and deer along the highway, and to turn up the headlights until we got to Aspen, even if they blinded other drivers. Something told me the driver would ignore him the moment the screen slid shut and that Little Eff knew this but felt that giving order, however they were received, was a duty required of him by Nature - a duty I had a feeling he resented. From what I saw, he was a timid man insider who mostly just wanted to enjoy good things. But there was the name, and the money, and the position, and whether he liked it or not, they made him boss.

Elder Stark sees none of this. He sees a potential convert in Eff Sr (even after Little Eff makes it clear that he sees that the AFA are in pursuit of a big, big check), and he's willing to do anything required. In parallel, Stark takes up drugs even as his eating habits deteriorate, and he gets fat and malodorous. This transformation embodies Mr Kirn's ideas (at least) about what's wrong with macho America. The irony is that Stark claims to be helping Eff Sr by getting him onto a correct diet. As he becomes more a personal servant of the Effinghams and less an apostle, Mason sees his own commitment to the grounded worldview in which he was raised deepen. A somewhat passive person at the beginning of Mission To America, Mason comes to act with intelligence and conviction. He becomes a good man before our eyes.

Unlike the macho men, moreover, Mason is possessed of a profound modesty. He knows his advantages but uses them without calling attention to them. Nor is this modesty in any way religious. As the novel unfolds, we learn that the Apolstles, while tending to be chaste, have not clouded sexuality with Judeo-Christian (or any other) claptrap about temples and fornicators. Mason, although a virgin at the start, simply lacks the hangups that would agonize a more conventionally religious young man. He is lured, by his own inexperience as well as by Stark, to go to bed with a girl who's just turned fifteen - the news is very alarming and unsexy, simply because he knows what jailbait means. (The word does not come up.) His second encounter is with a troubled beauty, Betsy, and this leads to love. The course of love is anything but smooth, but it keeps going.

In a paraphrase of the Gospel that the novelist may not have intended, Mason climbs a mountain with the devil and is tempted; he resists as stoutly as Jesus. The devil is Lance, a man of no morality whatever who has taken on a veneer of Christianity and formed something called Alpencross, which mixes evangelism with rappelling. His muscles are "ropy" and he wears his long grey hair in a ponytail. On the mountain, he confesses to Mason that has done some very bad things, and Mason will soon piece together that Lance did some very bad things to Betsy - that he even contemplated stuffing her in a sack and throwing her from the very precipice they're standing on. If the Effinghams stand for the immoral arrogance of great wealth, Lance represents the quackery that flourishes in so much unsupervised Christianity. What both wealth and hypocrisy specialize in here is the promotion of narcissistic good feelings. This is inherent in the climax of the novel, a bizarre shooting match at the Effingham ranch. Eff Sr decides to invite some highly-placed friends for a shoot. The target? The prize buffalo. Five lucky winners will get to use five heirloom firearms, including one owned by Teddy Roosevelt.

A former girlfriend of Little Eff kills herself at the ranch's gate. At the reception after the funeral, as the current girlfriend, a gleaming beauty who has put a pothole in the course of Mason's love for Betsy, tells him about her real past, Mason daydreams about abandoning the mission and taking Elder Stark home to Bluff.

We could throw our white shirts in the laundry, or in the garbage, and formally declare defeat to Lauer, whose own trips through Terrestria should have taught him that people here often felt that they'd been saved already - three or four times over, some of them, and by too many methods to keep track of - and the few who had no faith but wanted one were either so rich or or confused or beaten down that enlightening them meant going crazy yourself.

At a minimum, Mason wants to pull Elder Stark away from a milieu that, among other things, is making his body grotesque.

My partner scooped up corn chips from the bowl and crushed them past his lips. reducing them to a yellow mealy mash that I received several revolting glimpses of as he labored to make it swallowable by gulping up extra saliva from his throat. ...

My partner's joy dislocated his features, stretching them and pushing them apart as his skull tried to burst through his face in sheer exuberance. He dipped his head to meet the straw sticking up from his Dr Pepper can and merrily, gurglingly sucked, crossing his eyes to watch the rising liquid. Here was my opportunity to avenge myself for the pummeling of the other day and then, once I'd whipped him, drag him to the van. I couldn't bear to touch him now, forever. That body, so glutted with grease and arrogance. That mind deceived by From Sea to Shining Sea.

Elder Stark has been corrupted by his rivalry with Lance, who is also angling for a piece of the Effingham pie. The rivalry is deranged, for, under Lauer's tutelage, Stark has forgotten about conversion and become obsessed with closing a deal. There is nothing he won't do, no risk he won't take. Stark is dazzled by the new world that he's found in Snowshoe - a world that has only disgusted Mason. Or, at best, made no sense to him.

The black Suburbans came and went all day, dropping the visitors and their heavy bags. I carried a few of these so I knew their weight, though I couldn't imagine what accounted for it. Summer clothing, even several days' worthy, might add up to a pound or two, at most, yet some of the suitcases took two hands to lift. I didn't pry, though. I stayed quiet, invisible. Costumed according to various strange ideas about the situations that might arise this far west and this far from the city (I saw people dressed for saloon brawls, stagecoach rides, powwows, cattle drives, gunfights, poker games), the new arrivals spoke mostly to one another and mostly about matters I couldn't fathom. I heard talk about treasury coupons, the Harvard rowing team, a Chicago divorce lawyer nicknamed "the Incisor," new medications for swollen prostate glands, a store called Bergdorf's and "the flat tax." I couldn't tell which of the guests were friends or strangers or relatives by marriage who hadn't met before but had communicated on the phone once. It was clear, though, that almost every one of them harbored some interest in almost every other one and assumed that the others were interested in them.

Mission To America is an exciting read, and I've tried not to spill too much about the actual story. It is not just a good read, though, and Mr Kirn's distinctions between Bluff and Terrestria seem largely to favor womanly good sense over manly competitiveness. Significantly, he presents these distinctions through the eyes of a good man who turns out to be a good, strong man. Maybe it's not really necessary to do more than to turn Tuesday into Wednesday and February into March. Not, at least, to get worked up about it.  (March 2006)

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