November 16, 2005: Reading Room
By Maurice Timothy Reidy ’97
By all appearances Walter Kirn ’83 would seem to be a certified member of the East Coast media elite. He writes provocative book reviews for The New York Times, reports for Time magazine, and publishes fiction. Yet, unlike other writers who move in these literary circles, Kirn does not live in New York or Boston, but in Livingston, Mont.
Kirn didn’t seek to isolate himself from the East Coast media world when he left New York in 1990. He moved to Montana, he says, because it was cheaper and quieter than Manhattan.
Kirn draws on his familiarity with the American West in his latest novel, Mission to America, published by Doubleday in October. The book is “my attempt to capture the new West, this absurd new place of vast egos and sudden new-money kingdoms,” Kirn says. Mission tells the story of Mason LaVerle and Elder Stark, two members of a fictional religious sect founded in the 19th century called the Aboriginal Fulfilled Apostles. The Apostles live in the isolated town of Bluff, Mont., but their numbers are dwindling. LaVerle and Stark are sent on a mission to find converts. Among the people they encounter in their travels are a wealthy businessman with bowel problems and a former porn star trying to escape her past.
A comic novel, Mission is also a commentary about contemporary American society. Kirn says he tried to “write on a little bit of a broader canvas than I’ve done in the past.” One of the topics he addresses is religion, which Kirn calls “the elephant in the living room of American society.”
“What Americans have been freed to do by our economic wealth is to seek meaning,” Kirn says. “We have, unlike any other Western secular nation, introduced religious questions to the highest level of government.”
Mission to America isn’t as autobiographical as some of Kirn’s earlier novels, including Thumbsucker (1999), a coming-of-age tale about a teenager, which was recently made into a movie. But Mission does draw on Kirn’s experiences with Mormonism, which he and his family converted to when he was a teenager.
Kirn majored in English at Princeton and later studied English literature at Oxford. His Princeton experience is never far from his mind. Kirn wrote about it in The Atlantic Monthly last winter. The article detailed Kirn’s social and academic struggles at Princeton — a time when, he says, he was “at sea intellectually” and “threatened and confused socially.” The article, which painted some of his fellow students in an unflattering light and has been criticized by some alumni, was simply a memoir about his experience, Kirn says, not a commentary about Princeton.
Mission to America, by contrast, seeks to speak to more than one person’s experience. What may seem like a purely comic story of wacky missionaries is actually a pointed critique of American attitudes about religion and popular culture. This critique lingers just below the surface for anyone willing to look beyond the laughs.
Maurice Timothy Reidy ’97 is an associate editor at Commonweal magazine.
To Save the Wild Bison: Life on the Edge in Yellowstone — Mary Ann Franke ’75 (University of Oklahoma). The author examines the controversy over how to safely maintain wild bison in Yellowstone National Park. The bison pose risks to property and people when they roam outside the park, but measures to constrain the population threaten their status as wild animals. Franke is a writer who has worked in Yellowstone National Park.
Russia — photographs by Andrew Moore ’79, foreword by Boris Fishman ’01 (Chronicle Books). In a collection of color photographs, Moore captures Russia’s past and present in a wide range of images, including an ornate palace that now houses a hip-hop rehearsal studio and a statue of Lenin that lies forlorn. Moore is a lecturer in visual arts at Princeton; Fishman hosts a weekly radio talk show about Russian culture in New York City.
America and the Challenges of Religious Diversity — Robert Wuthnow (Princeton). The author, a sociologist, looks at how Americans are adapting to the influx of adherents of non-Western religions. Drawing on a national survey, his study finds that most Americans recognize the right of diverse groups to worship freely, but few Americans have bothered to learn much about religions other than their own. Wuthnow is director of the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton.