MISSION TO AMERICA

By Walter Kirn

Doubleday. 271 pp. $23.95

Walter Kirn's book reviews are wickedly smart, tight, funny, insightful and often controversial, showing little tolerance for uninteresting characters, implausible setups or lack of real conflict or drama. All of which raises the question: Has Kirn read his latest novel?

In Mission To America, Mason LaVerle and Elias Stark, both 24, have been sent out from their sheltered lives with a secluded sect called the Aboriginal Fulfilled Apostles in Bluff, Mont. There, the AFA's female leadership had directed, managed, synchronized and harmonized everything from the placement of the two young men's heads in the center of their pillows to their first sexual experiences to their system-cleansing diets. Theirs is a "church of tales" that, Kirn writes, "accorded anecdotes and gossip a higher place than formal doctrine." The AFA seems to reflect the arbitrariness of American religious dogma, stealing a bit from the Amish, Mormons, Hindus, Hopi Indians, Christians and New Agers.

The AFA have been so successful in isolating themselves -- although their members drive cars, shop, go to doctor's appointments in Missoula and even become participants in reality television shows -- that they are now at risk of extinction (along with idiocy, color-blindness, big heads, short arms and stubby fingers) from an incestuous gene pool. So the hand-picked LaVerle and Stark embark on a mission to "Terrestria" (modern American society) in a repossessed van to bring back fertile women, with the hope of spreading a little enlightenment along the way.

LaVerle is at once too naive and too wise in the ways of Terrestria to be believable. He's overwhelmed by the beauty products in a Sheridan, Wyo., drugstore -- particularly teeth whiteners -- but when a young woman takes him home and demands not only sex but "mean" sex, he barely raises an eyebrow and complies with implausible competency, considering that he lost his virginity only a few months before under the most controlled circumstances. His partner, Stark, manages a more believable response, quickly assimilating into society by wigging out on television, junk food, caffeine and drugs.

In Wyoming, they encounter "red-eyed wrecks, like stragglers from a disbanded traveling circus," surly hotel clerks and sullen teen girls posing as Wiccans. Then they drop down into the tony Colorado ski town of Snowshoe Springs, where they meet up with wealthier and prettier but no more complex characters. Stark worms his way into the good graces of digestively challenged Errol Effingham Sr., a billionaire with a nearby ranch large enough to accommodate a herd of 500 trophy buffalo and a pack of trophy wolves to hunt them. LaVerle takes up with Betsy, a former Internet porn star, who's about the only character here with any character.

Milling around the edges are cosmetically beautiful women who strive to marry rich men and worry about losing both the beauty and the men, rich men who strive to bed beautiful women, a few Hollywood types and a born-again Christian who has turned his Christianity into a mountain-climbing business. We spend a lot of time exploring the absurdities, extravagances, contradictions and lack of social conscience of the privileged, wealthy, powerful, famous and self-righteous.

If a book jacket touts its author as "one of the most acute observers of contemporary American life that we have," that author must do more than point out the obvious. Kirn's characters feel as if they have been cut and pasted on the page -- composites acting out a contrived plot for the sake of offering the author a vehicle on which to lay obvious social insights. When one character commits suicide after being rejected by the billionaire's son, the reader is tempted to join the remaining cast in shrugging it off and refusing to let it spoil the entertainment at hand, which happens to be a buffalo hunt.

Kirn has a keen eye for satiric details, such as the fake tans and personalized license plates of the wealthy and the cheap vinyl shoes and short-sleeved white shirts of the missionaries. But his novel doesn't provide the nuance to give us new perspective on these characters. Reading about them in the pages of this novel isn't any more thoughtful than reading about their counterparts in the pages of a celebrity magazine. *

Jana Richman is the author of "Riding in the Shadows of Saints: A Woman's Story of Motorcycling the Mormon Trail."