Walter Kirn

"Mission to America"

(Reviewed by Brian Farrey MAR 22, 2006)

Satire’s a tricky business.  Religious satire lends new meaning to tricky.  But in the hands of a skilled wordsmith, the pitfalls of tricky give way to the promise of triumph. Such is the case with Mission to America by Walter Kirn.

In Mission to America, we are introduced to a sheltered religious sect known as the Aboriginal Fulfilled Apostles who call Bluff, Montana home. Mason LaVerle and Elder Stark venture out beyond the confines of the religious town to gather new sheep for the church’s dissipating flock (women, especially, are encouraged to apply). Together, the naïve duo begin a trek across the country in an effort to learn more about the outside world—Terrestria—and concoct the best way of convincing young women that the AFA is the church for them.

What is immediately apparent in this novel is how keenly Kirn can turn his Teflon gaze on the quirks and foibles of contemporary life in our country.  He doesn’t shy away from bringing the most uncomfortable details and realities into sharp relief.  Kirn demonstrates little tolerance for hypocrisy and takes no prisoners, whether he’s skewering deeply rooted religious traditions or the flagrantly audacious lifestyles of the rich. Most importantly, he does this not to be mean or—as can so often be the case in modern humor writing—out for a laugh at the expense of others, but he does it because there’s an admiration and understanding for the people of this country.

But in some ways, these observances fall flat and fail to ring true with what the satire is saying.  It’s one thing to point out a quirk, it’s another to lend it meaning. Recognition can certainly be funny but it’s satire’s mission to set that humorous familiarity in context.  I’m reminded of the episode of Cheers where Cliff takes a shot at being a stand-up comic. His entire repertoire consists of set-up observations like, “And parking meters…what’s up with that?”  Where a more skilled comedian than Cliff would continue by pointing out exactly what their beef with parking meters is, Cliff lets the joke stop there and it’s not funny.  This sometimes happens with Kirn’s observations about the short-sleeved shirts of the missionaries or the fake tans of the billionaires. We’re asked “What’s up with that?” and then the answer doesn’t come.

However, there’s no denying that this is a funny book and I will, no doubt, give it another read one day.  The dialogue is smart without being needlessly sassy, the exaggeration is done to a perfect comic medium, and the pace moves like a well-timed one liner.  At the end, I was left looking forward to learning what the next target for Kirn’s prickly wit might be.

I would ask Mr. Kirn for his take on politics but I feel enough humor is played out in that arena on a daily basis as it is.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 12 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Mission to America at Random House



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About the Author:

Walter KirnWalter Kirn is a contributing editor to Time and GQ and a regular review ofre the New York Time Book Review. His work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the New York Times Book Review, GQ, Vogue, New York, and Esquire.

He lives in Livingston, Montana.

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