Walter Kirn's newest novel "Mission to America" begins, in a sense, where his celebrated 1999 novel "Thumbsucker" left off...

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“Mission to America”
by Walter Kirn
Doubleday, 271 pp., $23.95

Walter Kirn’s newest novel “Mission to America” begins, in a sense, where his celebrated 1999 novel “Thumbsucker” left off.

In “Thumbsucker,” teenage narrator Justin Cobb is headed into New York City as a newly not-so-converted Mormon missionary. In “Mission to America,” true believer Mason LaVerle is also beginning a religious quest.

With an ailing matriarch and a dwindling congregation, his church of the Aboriginal Fulfilled Apostles is desperately in need of females. So along with his scruffy partner Elder Stark, Mason leaves his small Montana town for “Terrestria,” better known to us as the continental United States.

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Kirn’s story starts off strongly with a gentle comic energy as he sketches in church history and doctrine. He delineates the characters who make up the AFA hierarchy, including the dynamic, wheeler-dealer Ennis Lauer, the mastermind behind the replenish-the-flock plan.

The narrative picks up momentum when the culturally sheltered apostles take to the road in a “green Dodge camper van” and meet up with a group of Wiccan teenagers at a Sweety Freeze in Casper, Wyo.

One of the girls makes an immediate impression on Mason:

“The top girl ate a cheesy finger. She fascinated me. I couldn’t stop staring at her lipsticked mouth — at the perfect alignment between its wet red corners and the corners of her pumpkin-seed-shaped eyes, brownly outlined in pencil and bluely shadowed. Apostle girls used makeup, too, but without any flair or conviction, to mask their flaws. This girl, though, was a master of lavish effects beyond those required for basic facial smoothness.”

Next stop for the young, impressionable missionaries is Snowshoe Springs, Colo., Lauer’s pick for a ritzy, affluent demographic. There they will meet a washed up soap star, a former Internet porn model, a born-again fitness bum and one wacko rancher billionaire

And here, at the one-third mark, the satire hits a series of speed bumps that eventually slows the comedy to a near halt.

The trouble with “Mission to America” is not in conception: The clash between the innocent and the profane is as surefire as the 2,000-year-old Roman comedy of Plautus. What keeps this novel from working as successfully as “Thumbsucker” is a less interesting hero and pretty mundane comic targets.

The character ripe for skewering is the smoothly vacuous schemer Lauer. Here’s a guy with a bull’s-eye written all over him. But Kirn doesn’t seem to know how pivotal Lauer is to the satire. He uses Lauer to set up the action and then reduces him to a voice over a phone.

That said, Kirn can’t help but write sharp, funny dialogue. One hopes he writes a play someday. Maybe about “intelligent design”?