The Religious Zealot and the Dingbat Plutocrat

Mission to America

The Religious Zealot and the Dingbat Plutocrat

Mission to America

The Religious Zealot and the Dingbat Plutocrat
New books dissected over email.
Oct. 19 2005 6:50 AM

Mission to America

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Walter,

"Affectionate realism" is as good a description as any for Mission to America. I said "fable" because America is inherently fabulous; writing about it straight only means it'll come out crooked. I didn't know that you grew up in the dead center of its delicious weirdness. Now I can begin to account for the peculiar balance of tone that makes your book a success. Up until 12 you were a non-Mormon—hence Mason's ability to look at his community at once affectionately (from within) and coldly (from without). But you became a Mormon before you fully hit adolescence, so Mason's coldness is never bitter.  Mason sees himself for who he is: "I lifted my downcast eyes from my cheap shoes, whose style, I'd realized the other afternoon, marked me as a young man to be pitied and only approached for favors like driving directions or change for a dollar, not growth enablement." Or another favorite: "I've never been good at jokes. They wilt on me. I feel them wilting even before they start to and it changes my voice a little, which hastens the wilting." It's important to reiterate how a book like this could easily have gone wrong. It could have been sweaty, hee-haw broad, or larded with a lot of portentous wisdom. Mission to America is not any of these things. Like Mason, it's funny, easygoing, and wise.

Stephen Metcalf Stephen Metcalf
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.
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How amusing that reviewers look at the Effingham ranch as some sort of incredible literary construct. Have they never met really rich people? When Fitzgerald wrote that the "very rich ... are different from you and me," he might as well have said that they're bat-shit insane. The reason is that for many people wealth represents a very specific fantasy of splendidly isolated English-style squiredom. But when transplanted to America, to a culture of manic acquisitive individualism, the results are nonsensical. I've met in my life (and should add, for the most part liked) three insanely rich men, and let me tell you, yours is no literary construct. The rich envelope themselves in their own loneliness, which they then try to pierce in the strangest of ways. What I love about Mission to America is that, though it's built around the competing desires of two classes of American separatists—the religious zealot and the dingbat plutocrat—what gets in everybody's way is the road. This is a road novel in which everyone wants to get off the road, and fails.

The fantasy of splendid isolation is undone mostly by women. Mason hits the road looking for satisfactory breeding stock (don't we all?), and the women he meets in Mission to America give his quest its wild unpredictability. The Wiccans are hilarious (see yesterday's post), but then you top yourself: Lara, Hadley, and of course Betsy.  Let's take these one at a time. Lara is really the lynchpin of the entire novel, in a way. If Mason and Elder are salesmen, Lara is their dream customer, a woman so deeply insecure on the right night anyone could convert her to anything, and then back again.

"You an actress?" I said.

"I did a network soap. I quit because I got heavy and coulnb't lose it, and then I moved here to ski and get my head straight. Then I met a guy. Now I'm suicidal. You're right, I might need a meal. Electrolytes. The last thing I ate was a pita chip with salsa after kickboxing on Tuesday. When was Tuesday?"

"Three days ago," my partner said.

"Then it was Wednesday," Lara said.

Lara brings the boys into the orbit of the ski bum rich, and eventually the Effinghams. Through these new connections, Mason eventually meets Betsy, the woman he seems to being considering as the ovarian crucible for future Apostles. You do their banter deliciously. Sitting outside a WalMart-like superstore, in which Mason has been mildly humiliated by a clerk:

"You're playing tough now to show me I don't scare you. Which means I must, or else you wouldn't bother. I think it's cute," said Betsy. "How cute are you?"

This wasn't the sort of question a man should answer. I stared out the bug-streaked windshield at the store and pictured it collapsing in a dust cloud that would spread over all of Boulder and block the sun. Someday it would happen; it felt inevitable.

"If I scare you, it must mean you like me," Betsy said. "Well, I like you too, so don't worry."

"Because I'm cute."

"No," she said. "because you try so hard."

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Of the three, though, Hadley may be my favorite. She's a woman so built on the foundations of her own falsity, there's no telling where she begins and the plastic surgery ends.

"You're a talented actress," I said, "with flawless features."

"'Actress' meaning 'insincere.' 'Flawless' meaning 'ever-so-slightly sterile.'"

"You said you take flattery well. I guess you don't."

"Only when it's wholehearted."

"It was."

"Naughty. Eek! But honest. I just love it. Now don't look down at your knee, here comes my hand."

And then, as promised, there it was.

I'm afraid I have to ask a couple of crushingly literal question. Is Hadley's sob story, about her father's book-of-the-month club, true?  Or should a good critic know, or know well enough not to ask? And the question no writer relishes—your influences, Sir? I'm picking up many wavelengths from the spirit ether—Mormonism, Steinerism, the Coen Brothers, Twain, Mork and Mindy. Can you help a poor critic out? And since I'm signing off here: This is a terrifically fun novel, Walter; it somehow gets at how being an American means being totally alien and yet totally at home. I enjoyed it immensely.

Best,
Steve

It hadn't occurred to me, but that's exactly it—the leisure class now buying up Montana and Idaho are utopians, too, in a way.