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Kirn's 'Mission' is passable, but it's not among his best


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Walter Kirn, the graceful critic, essayist and novelist, has been on a roll. His last two comic novels were embraced by Hollywood.

The movie version of Thumbsucker, about an adolescent who defies therapies for his oral obsession, was recently released. And DreamWorks plans to do Up in the Air, about an overworked consultant whose ambition has been reduced to accumulating 1 million frequent-flier miles.

Kirn's latest satire, Mission to America, is a disappointment, however. It's just not that funny or biting and ends too predictably.

The premise is promising. In Montana, where Kirn lives, the Church of the Aboriginal Fulfilled Apostles has kept to itself for 147 years.

It's governed by seeresses who have concocted a blend of Christian, Hopi and Hindu beliefs with a nutritional faith in strong digestives. The church's motto: "What Should Be, Is."

But it's facing a crisis: Too much inbreeding, or what one believer calls a "biological sunset."Two young male apostles, including the novel's narrator, are dispatched to the strange outside world to find new wives and mothers.

The missionaries are innocents set loose in the modern, restless and rootless West. All the narrator knows about pop culture he has learned from a discarded Trivial Pursuit game.

The rest is as rambling as the missionaries' misadventures. They're tempted by drugs, sex and shopping opportunities. They meet people looking for salvation in all the wrong places.

One of the funniest scenes is set in a discount warehouse. The narrator has always assumed "that a balance was intended between human beings and their things, but at WorkMart it seemed that our purpose on this earth was to lift, transport, and set back down stupendous loads of metals, wood and plastic."

Predictably, the mission is doomed. The narrator comes to realize "that people here felt that they'd been saved already -- three or four times over, some of them, and by too many methods to keep track of -- and the few who had no faith but wanted one were either so rich or confused or beaten down that enlightening them meant going crazy yourself."

Readers won't go crazy, but they'll find as little enlightenment as the hapless missionaries.

*Read an excerpt from Mission to America at books.usatoday.com.

To see more of USAToday.com, or to subscribe, go to http://www.usatoday.com

© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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