The philosopher Henri Bergson argued that satire, which he regarded as a form of moral instruction, should be unforgiving in its portrayal of bad social behavior. But American novelists often take a gentler approach. These two new novels are good examples of a form of satire that might even be called sweet: their comic heroes are hapless, even foolish, but their creators are nonetheless quite fond of them.
Karen Olsson is fond of virtually all the characters-and there are quite a few of them—in Waterloo, her send-up of contemporary Austin (the city was originally known as Waterloo). She is clearly fond of Austin too, and even as she skewers its opportunistic politicians, its lazy press, its greedy profiteers, and its out-of-date musicians, she celebrates the American city-if we can accept Texas as part of America and not some foreign fiefdom. Olsson plays with both ideas: her politicians and developers use all the standard American profit- and power-grabbing tricks, but their world is so inbred and exotic that they do seem at least a few borders removed from the rest of us.
Waterloo is Olsson’s first book, a complex novel whose many characters interact in surprising ways. Nick Lasseter is a reporter for the Waterloo Weekly (Olsson, who writes for Texas Monthly, brings to the newspaper scenes a strong sense of the diminishing stakes for so many local reporters). The novel implies that Lasseter is the kind of underachiever—college and band dropout, uninspired journalist—Austin attracts. Indeed, his friends and acquaintances all seem a little lost too, as they contemplate their changing city (changing, that is, in a plus ça change kind of way). Nick’s girlfriend is now engaged to someone else, and his efforts to win her back are mostly embarrassing. So is his stinky bathroom. If an earlier generation of Waterloo pols and writers hustled their way to power, Nick and his pals are drifting, aimless and powerless. What’s notable about Olsson’s portrayal is how sympathetic a character Nick is. In graceful and often very funny prose, Olsson gives us a young man who feels such deep affection for everything around him-especially his city-that it’s almost impossible not to like him.
Nick’s uncle Bones-a hard-drinking lobbyist willing to spin his own nephew if it suits his purposes-is a member of that older, more purposeful, generation. He feeds Nick documents about an urban renewal project supported by Beverly Flintic, a Republican state legislator from the suburbs whose staccato-sounding surname matches her bristly personality. Beverly is the means by which Olsson takes aim at the ’burbs, with their “vast stores out of which hardware, bath towels, and kitchen things were continually being transferred to the houses, until those houses were full, and they had to build new houses.” Olsson portrays Flintic as Bergson might have wanted her-she’s relentlessly unlikable-and then pulls an authorial switcheroo. Rather than punishing Flintic for her big-business sympathies, Olsson allows her the opportunity to soften up, personally and politically. (I would have liked to see Flintic get her comeuppance, but Olsson clearly has more generous impulses.)
In its present-day scenes, the novel focuses mainly on Nick, Beverly, and a reporter named Andrea Carter, who is not the object of any satire whatsoever. Andrea is shy, smart, and—to top things off and make her a suitable love interest for Nick-pretty. She is also an African American, and as the daughter of the man who challenged Waterloo’s segregated library system, serves as the witness to a time when life really did change, and through political means. Andrea has befriended the old Austin politician her father used to work for, and when the congressman dies she begins to search for the significance of her father’s life too. This comic novel uses Andrea for serious relief. Her scenes, and the intermittent flashbacks to her father and the congressman, explore the tensions between pragmatism and idealism in satisfying fashion. Waterloo is, throughout, an appealing comic combination of political ideas and social entanglements. It goes down as fast and smooth as Bones’s Maker’s Mark, but its complications are resonant.
Walter Kirn’s latest novel, Mission to America, does not go down so fast-it slows down appreciably in its middle sections—but Kirn is such an original writer that it’s worth some slow-narrative stretches to see what he’s up to in this, his most broadly comic novel. From his first dazzling collection of stories, My Hard Bargain, through three previous novels, Kirn’s fiction has focused on smart, neurotic male heroes who are as beguiled and confused by religious belief as they are by family life and all the weirder aspects of American culture. He has written often and charmingly about Mormonism, and though he is sharply funny, like Olsson he is unwilling to abandon his characters to his most punishing satiric impulses.
In Mission to America he creates a religion-the church of the Aboriginal Fulfilled Apostles-that will allow him to satirize both American-born religions and America’s impulse to purify itself in body and soul. This is the territory that tough-guy writers like Harry Crews and T. Coraghessan Boyle have explored so scathingly, but Kirn’s approach is kinder, gentler. His Apostles, a female-controlled sect led by a seeress, have cast off European influences and invented their church as “a fresh revelation of the New World, as native to this land as pronghorn antelope.” They practice Edenic Nutritional Science, which teaches that “disease begins in the gut.” Our hero, Mason LaVerle, eats a glorious leafy diet and leads something of an Edenic life in other ways, too: young apostles are allowed one sexual experience before marriage, in an initiation ceremony called “the Frolic.” Mason’s intended, though, is a little controlling for his taste. His ambivalence toward powerful females is a good echo of the whole novel’s ambivalence.
That is not to say that the novel is any more positive about male power. The plot is set into motion when an Apostle named Ennis Lauer, winner of a national endurance contest and now a quintessentially American celebrity, proceeds with plans to wrest power from the women. He sends Mason out on a mission with Elder Stark, a good comic foil who promptly ingests vast quantities of junk food and begins his steady spiritual decline.
The pair’s road trip (some scenes are screenplay-ready) involves a series of encounters with decidedly unaboriginal (not to mention unfulfilled) females, including Wiccan girls in Wyoming and a suicidal TV actress in Colorado. Mason and his partner have been instructed to convert the wealthy of the West (and bring back brides), though Mason has some ideas about heading East, too. But our missionary team becomes entangled with Errol Effingham, a prototypical American despoiler of the Western landscape. Here the novel temporarily employs unforgiving Bergsonian satirical mode. Effingham, who has hired a desperate writer to produce American Maverick: Errol Effingham’s Long and Lonely Ride to Riches, entertains a steady stream of social and religious climbers, including Elder Stark, at his vast estate. Meanwhile, Mason falls in love with a woman whose past includes posing for Internet porn sites, a character not fully explored (so to speak) though she will play a crucial role in the future of the Apostles.
Perhaps because Effingham and his minions are such familiar villains (certainly to anyone who ever watched Dallas), the middle section of the book lags. The rich are certainly the worthiest targets of satire, but by story’s end they tax a reader’s patience. They tax Mason’s patience, too. Appalled by a bison hunt on Effingham’s ranch, but marveling at the world’s “astonishments,” he speeds back to the good Apostles of his youth.
Mason LaVerle is an unfailingly sympathetic character, but what is Kirn suggesting about his homespun religion? That it’s laughable? That it’s worth running home to reclaim? The novel tries out both stances, just as it is of two minds about powerful women. Ultimately, Kirn cannot allow himself to make merciless fun of either Mason or of the Apostles. He sees something lovable in our longing for goodness and purity, however naive and deluded we seekers might be. Mission to America is an oddly optimistic satire, with a zany American accent.