Sunday, April 8, 2007

What I'm Reading: Mission to America

I came across Mission to America when it was recommended by a friend, after I told him that I was looking for an American Nick Hornby. I've become a big Nick Hornby fan over the past year or so (and adored his recent books on books, The Polysyllabic Spree and Housekeeping vs. the Dirt), but I figure there have to be a few American novelists out there who have the same sort of wit, insight, and ability to get under the skin of interesting characters, while still being funny, and sometimes serious without having to be tragic. At the moment, he's one of a few writers from whom I just want to read everything he's written, because it's just so much fun, and I hope that if I read enough of it, maybe I'll at least subconsciously figure out how he does it.

I liked Mission to America quite a bit. It was the first book of Walter Kirn's that I'd read, though I've had an interest in reading Thumbsucker, and the film made me want to read the book. The premise of Mission to America seemed interesting: that an obscure and isolated sect in Montana, on the verge of dying out due to generations of inbreeding, sends out two missionaries to essentially bring back some women converts that will help flesh out the gene pool.

Along the way, they interact with the corrupting influences of America, and while trying to stay true to their beliefs, get entangled in a world that's more bizarre than the one they left.

The book does a good job of not being heavy-handed in either direction. The simple life in Bluff, Montana, isn't exactly perfect. And the two missionaries do meet some interesting people out in the world who aren't totally crazy (though not many).

For me, the book started out fast, and then got lost a bit in the middle. At the very end, though, I couldn't put it down, and I probably came across as fairly anti-social this Easter weekend at my in-laws, as I read through to the ending.

Kirn's writing can be wonderfully sharp and sometimes I'd reread passages, just to make sure I didn't skim through it (it's a fast read overall). However, I have to confess that I wish that the two missionaries hadn't ended up bogged down in an Aspen-like town in Colorado, amongst freakishly wealthy families and ski bums. It seems like his social satire would have taken a bigger risk, but maybe had more of an impact, if they fell in amongst a slightly more typical set of Americans. The people in his Aspen stand-in don't feel like me and don't live anything close to the way I live. And their problems and their personalities barely interested me. So the satire's reach ends up feeling limited.

Still, Kirn's clearly a talented, experienced writer, and he writes a complicated story and set of interactions. I look forward to reading more of what he's written. However, I'm still looking for the American Nick Hornby. Suggestions?


katrog said...

I haven't read any Nick Hornby, but I liked Walter Kirn's Up in the Air. And you might like the new novel by Joshua Ferris, Then We Came to the End. Although it gets a bit lost in po-mo shenanigans, it really captures office life, in this case an advertising agency in Chicago.


patrick said...

I'll definitely have to check out Joshua Ferris. Thanks, Kathleen!