Mission to America
You bravely asked about my influences and I'm going to answer you, with foolish candor: Mission to America is based, if it's based on anything, on the Hardy Boys mysteries, which were pretty much the only books I read before I went to college. I'm being serious here. I loved the setup in those books: Two boys—one fair, one dark; one serene and lighthearted, one slightly brooding—set out from a town where everything feels safe to have adventures in the wider world, all the time being distantly watched over by their supercapable parent, Fenton. The case the boys are trying to crack always turns out to be related to one that Fenton is working on, too, and in the end there's always a reunion.
But what if there weren't? I asked myself. What if, while the boys were on the road, Bayport were swept away or fell to ruins and Fenton were diagnosed with a terminal illness? And what if, to make things more troubling and lifelike, one of our boy heroes were corrupted during the period of wandering?
There's some Twain in the book, too, as you discerned (and some Twain in the Hardy Boys, if you think about it). But the embarrassing truth is that my writing can't escape its lowbrow, juvenile roots. It's a pet theory of mine, in fact, that most grown-up novels can be boiled down to certain storybook, childlike elements. Personally, I can't seem to get away from the quest-and-rescue narrative. The best I can do is invent new monsters and hazards for the voyagers to wrestle with and people the journey with more modern sirens.
I'm glad you liked the women in the book because it's a book about women. About their pull. About the way their beings bridge the gap between the earthly and the ethereal. Harold Bloom, a man whom I don't know, wrote me a note about Mission to America not long ago (I'm not sure how it came to his attention), and though his remarks were flattering in general, he did say that he found the female characters more compelling than their male counterparts. That was fine with me. The 19th-century spiritual culture that Mason and his partner both grew up in was, by and large, a feminine culture, as opposed to the masculine, spiritual cosmos of present-day Christian fundamentalism. Women back then were teachers and mediums, conduits of mystery and wisdom, and there was no shame for their male followers in bowing to their matriarchal powers. Nowadays it's the reverse, perhaps as a result of women's advances in the secular realm. They're CEOs and lawyers, which makes it harder to picture them as seeresses, soothsayers, and witches.
There's one more aspect of the book I'd like to touch on before I go. America is in spiritual crisis now, I sincerely believe it, and novelists just aren't addressing this dire fact. As never before, we're running around the world correcting other people on their politics, their economic systems, and everything else, but here at home life feels hollow and overextended. We can't clean up the damage from our own storms. We can't stop burning fuels we can't replace. We can't lose the weight. We can't pay off the credit cards. We're off on a thousand noble expeditions but back at base camp conditions are deteriorating. My novel allegorizes this situation and was written, now that we're speaking candidly, out of a sense that the grand utopian energies that created the country in the first place are rapidly and disastrously dwindling. It's high time, I think, for a mission to America, carried out from within, from the depths of our own history. My book takes a humorous, fanciful stab at imagining such an exercise (in miniature) and estimating its chances of success. I'm glad you liked it. I'm glad you're recommending it. I wrote this peculiar novel from the heart, not satirically but prayerfully.
Walter Kirn is a novelist and critic who lives in Livingston, Mont. Stephen Metcalf is a Slate critic and lives in Brooklyn. They are discussing Kirn's new novel,Mission to America.