From one of our most admired and visible young writers, a superb new novel about the collision between the forces of faith and an overstimulated, overfed, spiritually overextended America.
Mason LaVerle is a young man on a mission—a mission to America. He was raised in a remote Montana town in the church of the Aboriginal Fulfilled Apostles, a matriarchal, not-quite-Christian, almost New-Ageish sect that, like the Amish, keeps a wary distance from mainstream life. But the Apostles face a dwindling membership, so Mason is sent on an outreach mission with another young man to bring back converts—and, more specifically, brides. And so these two naive believers head off in a van to encounter the contemporary scene in all its bewildering, seductive diversity. They prosyletize at malls, passing out leaflets in parking garages based on the condition of their cars and their bumper stickers. Eventually, they make their way to a gilded Colorado ski town, where, while promoting their un-American message of humble, serene, optimistic fatalism, Mason finds himself courting a young woman who used to pose for Internet porn sites, and his partner becomes the live-in guru of a guilt-ridden billionaire with chronic bowel complaints. Meanwhile, back in Montana, the Apostles are facing schism and extinction as their beloved leader, the Seeress, drifts toward death. The mounting pressures lead Mason to the brink of missionary madness.
Walter Kirn is one of the most acute observers of contemporary American life that we have. In Mission to America, he harnesses that gift to a satirical yet moving tale of a stranger in a strange land that just happens to be our own.
"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.
Partly we did it out of pity. We felt sorry for people who didn't know what we knew. By reading their newspapers in our village library and questioning the occasional lost hiker or adventurous dirt-road motorist, we realized as never before that life out there had become strident, disheartening and harsh while life back here, back home in Bluff, Montana, remained harmonious and sweet. But we also had selfish reasons for what we did. Over the years we'd come to understand that there was something we needed from the outsiders, without which our charmed little world might not survive. 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. We needed to stir our lumpy hard old stock until it was soft enough to pour again. And so, for the first time since we came together one hundred and forty-seven-years earlier, and in violation of our traditions of silence, modesty, and isolation, we gathered a party to go down out of the hills and mount, at long last, a mission to America.
The strange disturbed place needed help, and so did we.
Our wisdom for their vigor. We hoped to trade.
We were the Aboriginal Fulfilled Apostles and I am Mason Plato LaVerle. I won't start by recounting all of our history; it will trickle out. We approved, that's the main thing. We approved abundantly. We approved of the Prince of Flocks, whom others call Christ, and of our God of Gods, the-All-in-One, but we also approved of a host of other divinities, majestic and humble, familiar and obscure, from tricky Old Coyote, the Hopi spirit, to dainty Lady Vegetalis, a garden sylph of cloudy origins. We approved of diverse ideas and teachings as well, embracing the Golden Rule, Ten Commandments, the Hindu law of Karma, and our very own Perpetuity of Essence, which was easy to state but hard to comprehend. In the words of the Seeress, our aging leader, who spoke every week for three hours from her sunporch, propped in a wheelchair between two folded sheepskins and waving a quartz-tipped cedar cane for emphasis, Death does not end us, Birth does not begin us, and Life does not corrupt us. We stream on forever through the Etheric Flux, indestructible channels of vitality.
The doctrines we were best known for among outsiders--particularly in our first two decades, when the newspaper writers from the great cities still found our movement exotic and picturesque--related to health and bodily well-being. Edenic Nutritional Science, as we called it, was a system of eating and elimination that the inscrutable All-in-One took from Earth in the days of Zoroaster and finally restored in 1889 when the disembodied Discourser spoke to the Crow tribe's Little Red Elk, who corresponded with us through coded letters smuggled from his people's place of banishment near southern Montana's Bighorn River. Food, for Apostles, was more than physical sustenance; it was emotion materialized, hardened spirit, and its ingestion, absorption, and expulsion mirrored the deepest patterns of the universe. ENS is a subject for later on, though. First I should describe the situation that we found ourselves in a couple of years ago.
We'd gone without publicity for so long that outsiders had forgotten we existed. Then, the spring that I turned twenty-four, a handsome young AFA rancher named Ennis Lauer came from behind in the final round of Grit!, a nationally televised endurance contest, to beat out a Kansas federal prison guard for the top prize of half a million dollars. Quiet cunning bested boastful brawn as Lauer, in the program's closing challenge, lashed together a raft of willow branches to float six hundred pounds of cinder blocks to the finish line thirty miles away. The prison guard, who'd built a crude board sled with a harness that tied around his chest, still hadn't arrived when Lauer received the trophy and uttered his memorable five-word victory speech. "It wasn't me, but gravity."
Our leaders weren't pleased when Lauer joined the contest, but all was forgiven when he took the cup, becoming our movement's first celebrity since Francis Blair Howell, the presidential candidate who won one percent of the vote in 1960 by backing a total tax exemption for women. Lauer's fame was a thrill, for our men and boys especially, who'd grown up dominated by the Seeress and her white-haired quartet of female counselors. Now we had a hero who wore trousers. With his prize money, he erected a hillside mansion, the largest private structure in all of Bluff. It cantilevered out over downtown and cast a vast afternoon shadow over Venus Street that some people grumped and grouched about at first, until the Seeress taught them to regard it as a fortuitous giant public sundial.
Lauer had a manner and a bearing that enchanted photographers--a dreamy potency, detached yet fierce, forged by hard field work but also by meditation--and this led to a steady round of articles in newspapers from Portland to New Orleans. The Strongman Mystic of the Rockies, a hybrid of Atlas and Nostradamus. He bolstered his fame by publishing a calendar showing him in a corral among his stock with rolled-up sleeves, a half-unbuttoned work shirt, and mineral-oil perspiration on his chest (a stratagem that the Seeress reproached him for in a lengthy sermon on Illusion). The calendar sold three hundred thousand copies, helped by a story on a national news show, and Lauer, still smarting from his public scolding, devoted the funds to a spiritual effort he named the Apple.
The Initiative commenced in early June on the spacious third floor of Lauer's mansion, which he'd built in part as a community conference room to supplement the decrepit Celestial Hall. Through its tall picture windows I could see my town. It didn't resemble ordinary towns because it had almost no commercial district. Bluff's center had burned in 1965 when a fire surged down through a canyon to our west and overwhelmed our volunteer fire department, which refused all assistance from neighboring departments as well as the hated U.S. Forest Service, whom we'd been fighting in court for seven years for rights to the outflow of a thermal spring that heated the greenhouses where we grew our herbs. Not much was lost, though, just a hardware store, a welding garage, and a ladies clothing shop. Bluff operated then, to some degree, on a modified barter system called the Virtue Code, which assigned economic values to good deeds as well as to more conventional products and services. Cash was also honored for most transactions, but the co-op warehouse that stocked our food and sundries ran exclusively on Virtue Coupons. 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. Every couple of years a tax agent from Helena would storm through Bluff with armed guards and a black car and confiscate a portion of our currency, but it took only days for our printers to replace it, refining its design each time they did and adding more lines of texture to the dove's feathers.
Attendance at the Initiative's first seminar was by invitation only. My father, a Mineral County deputy sheriff who only arrested people when he felt threatened by them, and my mother, who assisted the Seeress with various clerical and domestic chores, cautioned me when I was summoned that Lauer's views had yet to be sanctioned by the leadership and therefore couldn't be discussed in public. Still, they said it was crucial that I go.
"Mr. Lauer will make you privy to certain hard truths that perhaps you'd prefer not to know," my mother said, "but which wise AFAs must no longer turn away from." Unlike my father, my mother took pleasure in speech and stressed the seams and spaces between words. "Whatever he may require you to do, though, be confident you have our blessing. If we lose you, we lose you. 'What should be, is.' "
"Lose me how?" I asked.
My father seemed pained and got up and left the kitchen, not always the strongest of men when feelings threatened. The gun he carried for work had never looked right on him. It would have looked more appropriate on my mother.
"Lose you to their fine phantasms," she said.
The conference room held five men besides myself, none of them over thirty and all unmarried. Lauer, who'd gotten his hands on a projector during one of the paid outside appearances where he performed feats of strength for business audiences and touted his notion of Etheric Stamina, conducted a forty-minute presentation on our movements prospects in the next decades. He explained that unless we introduced new bloodlines into our active breeding pool, Bluff faced a so-called "biological sunset" that would enfeeble us in the near future and was, in fact, already causing harm. A hush settled over the room. We coughed and fidgeged. We knew all too vividly what Lauer meant. There were children in town who didn't seem quite right, who still couldn't read at nine and ten years old and who sat out the sports and games we'd played at their age because of sore joints and other vague complaints. The young man sitting next to me, Elias Stark, had a little nephew of twelve, I'd heard, who'd spent several months at a costly Seattle clinic learning to synchronize, for the first time, the movements of his left hand and his right eye.
"I'm going to speak sharply and plainly," Lauer said. "Someday our descendants will all be idiots. And there won't be enough of them, in any case. Our young ladies just aren't producing like they used to, and they were never prolific to begin with. In a way that's a tribute to their development. It means they enjoy the freedom to say 'no.' But there are limits, and soon we'll reach those limits."
Lauer left it there. We broke for lunch. We grazed on a buffet of local staples: thin-sliced antelope sausage on sprouted black rye, smoked rainbow trout preserved in cider vinegar, squash relish, c...
Walter Kirn's book reviews are wickedly smart, tight, funny, insightful and often controversial, showing little tolerance for uninteresting characters, implausible setups or lack of real conflict or drama. All of which raises the question: Has Kirn read his latest novel?
In Mission To America, Mason LaVerle and Elias Stark, both 24, have been sent out from their sheltered lives with a secluded sect called the Aboriginal Fulfilled Apostles in Bluff, Mont. There, the AFA's female leadership had directed, managed, synchronized and harmonized everything from the placement of the two young men's heads in the center of their pillows to their first sexual experiences to their system-cleansing diets. Theirs is a "church of tales" that, Kirn writes, "accorded anecdotes and gossip a higher place than formal doctrine." The AFA seems to reflect the arbitrariness of American religious dogma, stealing a bit from the Amish, Mormons, Hindus, Hopi Indians, Christians and New Agers.
The AFA have been so successful in isolating themselves -- although their members drive cars, shop, go to doctor's appointments in Missoula and even become participants in reality television shows -- that they are now at risk of extinction (along with idiocy, color-blindness, big heads, short arms and stubby fingers) from an incestuous gene pool. So the hand-picked LaVerle and Stark embark on a mission to "Terrestria" (modern American society) in a repossessed van to bring back fertile women, with the hope of spreading a little enlightenment along the way.
LaVerle is at once too naive and too wise in the ways of Terrestria to be believable. He's overwhelmed by the beauty products in a Sheridan, Wyo., drugstore -- particularly teeth whiteners -- but when a young woman takes him home and demands not only sex but "mean" sex, he barely raises an eyebrow and complies with implausible competency, considering that he lost his virginity only a few months before under the most controlled circumstances. His partner, Stark, manages a more believable response, quickly assimilating into society by wigging out on television, junk food, caffeine and drugs.
In Wyoming, they encounter "red-eyed wrecks, like stragglers from a disbanded traveling circus," surly hotel clerks and sullen teen girls posing as Wiccans. Then they drop down into the tony Colorado ski town of Snowshoe Springs, where they meet up with wealthier and prettier but no more complex characters. Stark worms his way into the good graces of digestively challenged Errol Effingham Sr., a billionaire with a nearby ranch large enough to accommodate a herd of 500 trophy buffalo and a pack of trophy wolves to hunt them. LaVerle takes up with Betsy, a former Internet porn star, who's about the only character here with any character.
Milling around the edges are cosmetically beautiful women who strive to marry rich men and worry about losing both the beauty and the men, rich men who strive to bed beautiful women, a few Hollywood types and a born-again Christian who has turned his Christianity into a mountain-climbing business. We spend a lot of time exploring the absurdities, extravagances, contradictions and lack of social conscience of the privileged, wealthy, powerful, famous and self-righteous.
If a book jacket touts its author as "one of the most acute observers of contemporary American life that we have," that author must do more than point out the obvious. Kirn's characters feel as if they have been cut and pasted on the page -- composites acting out a contrived plot for the sake of offering the author a vehicle on which to lay obvious social insights. When one character commits suicide after being rejected by the billionaire's son, the reader is tempted to join the remaining cast in shrugging it off and refusing to let it spoil the entertainment at hand, which happens to be a buffalo hunt.
Kirn has a keen eye for satiric details, such as the fake tans and personalized license plates of the wealthy and the cheap vinyl shoes and short-sleeved white shirts of the missionaries. But his novel doesn't provide the nuance to give us new perspective on these characters. Reading about them in the pages of this novel isn't any more thoughtful than reading about their counterparts in the pages of a celebrity magazine.
Reviewed by Jana Richman
Copyright 2005, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.
"About this title" may belong to another edition of this title.
Book Description Doubleday. Hardcover. Book Condition: New. 038550764X . Bookseller Inventory # AUD2553RJRC120116H0250P
Book Description Doubleday, 2005. Hardcover. Book Condition: New. Bookseller Inventory # DADAX038550764X
Book Description Doubleday, 2005. Hardcover. Book Condition: New. book. Bookseller Inventory # 038550764X
Book Description Doubleday, 2005. Hardcover. Book Condition: New. Bookseller Inventory # P11038550764X
Book Description Doubleday, 2005. Hardcover. Book Condition: New. Dust Jacket Condition: New. 1st Edition. Doubleday, 2005. 8ov. 271p. New first printing signed by the author in a mylar-protected dj. Humorous fiction set in Montana and Colorado. Signed by Author(s). Bookseller Inventory # ABE-1495561449472
Book Description Doubleday. Hardcover. Book Condition: New. 038550764X New Condition. Bookseller Inventory # NEW6.1787549