Kirn, Walter 1962–
Kirn, Walter 1962–
Vanity Fair, New York, NY, journalist and editor, 1985-86; Spy, New York, journalist and editor, 1989-90; British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), London, England, American cultural correspondent, 1986-93; New York magazine, New York, book critic; GQ, New York, literary editor; New York Times, New York, book critic.
Association for Mormon Letters short story award, 1990, for My Hard Bargain.
My Hard Bargain (stories), Knopf (New York, NY), 1990.
She Needed Me (novel), Pocket Books (New York, NY), 1992.
(Author of text, with others) Boxers (nonfiction), Twin Palms, 1998.
Thumbsucker (novel), Anchor Books (New York, NY), 1999.
Up in the Air (novel), Doubleday, 2001.
Mission to America (novel), Doubleday (New York, NY), 2005.
The Unbinding (novel), Anchor Books (New York, NY), 2007.
Contributor to periodicals, including Vanity Fair, Gentlemen's Quarterly, Esquire, Vogue, Mirabella, Elle, and Poetry; contributing editor to Time.
Thumbsucker was adapted for film and directed by Mike Mills, Sony Pictures Classics, 2005.
Walter Kirn, a journalist and author, was raised on a farm in Minnesota, but later headed east to complete his education at Princeton and Oxford universities. As a Princeton undergraduate he gravitated toward poetry, switching to fiction only after receiving encouragement from an editor at Alfred A. Knopf. In the decade of the 1990s, Kirn published a short story collection and two novels, while simultaneously serving as a journalist for such publications as Vanity Fair and New York magazine.
In his debut book, a collection of thirteen stories titled My Hard Bargain, Kirn returns to the Midwest to create a world not of urban sophistication but of "idled land and dying animals, of people who don't win or lose so much as simply hang on with a measure of dignity," according to a Los Angeles Times contributor. Many of the stories in My Hard Bargain reflect rural despair in the lives of farmers, Mormons, and parents and children, and show the "hard bargains" they sometimes have to make. In "On the Set-aside," a farmer convalesces from an illness caused by pesticide exposure, while his crops perish under the idleness brought about by a federal subsidy. "Toward the Radical Church" features a farmer, Clarence Dahlgren, who participates in a night of drinking with his two sons the evening before he is scheduled to fly to New York City to speak to a wealthy congregation about the economic plight of bankrupt Midwest farmers. "The Steward" portrays a farm boy who arms himself with a gun to protect his family from a lunatic reported to be in the vicinity, but is instead only confronted with the realization that his family's routines are utterly mundane.
Kirn's short stories are not without humor and a sense of mischief. In "Devil of a Curve," an old man who lives near a bend in a country road pulls drivers and their wrecked cars out of snow banks, while seizing each opportunity to find a wife for his son. The story "Continuous Breathing Relief" depicts a protagonist whose childhood memories are aroused by a jar of Vicks VapoRub. Kirn has written slice-of-life stories that demonstrate an ear for understated language and a grasp of what Pinckney Benedict in the Chicago Tribune called the "telling poetic moment." In Time, reviewer Paul Gray concluded that Kirn "never condescends to his beleaguered characters. He allows them the dignity of feeling responsible for their mistakes and the virtue of hoping, against the evidence of their experience, that things will get better."
With She Needed Me, Kirn turns to the larger canvas of the novel. His twenty-six-year-old protagonist, Weaver Walquist, is part of a group of radical evangelical Christians called the Conscience Squad, whose mission is to organize protests at abortion clinics and persuade women to not terminate their pregnancies. Weaver meets twenty-three-year-old Kim Lindgren outside a clinic. A writer of poetry used in greeting cards, Kim is pregnant and has been abandoned by her baby's father. Weaver's first goal is to save both her unborn child and her soul. But after frightening her away from the clinic and later tracking her down, Weaver's romantic interest in Kim overtakes his religious zeal. Eventually, they leave the streets of St. Paul, Minnesota, and head to North Dakota, where Weaver meets Kim's family, a collection of social misfits.
She Needed Me is a satire about fundamentalist fanatics that also explores the psychological motivations that underlie Weaver's obsession with saving unborn children. While drawn toward Kim by sexual desire, he also dreads the loss of both his soul and his identity at the hands of a woman, just as he feels that his own frighteningly large and emotionally distant mother rendered him an "unborn" child. New York Times Book Review contributor Diana Postlethwaite found that Kirn "is not wholly successful writing on a larger scale: he can dazzle with a satirical riff or an epiphanic insight, but he isn't always able to sustain a persuasive plot." Nonetheless, in light of the importance of the abortion issue in contemporary American society, Postlethwaite deemed Weaver a "ruefully appropriate hero" for the 1990s.
Thumbsucker, Kirn's second novel, is an angst-ridden story of one teenager's search for peace and meaning in his life. Justin Cobb has tried everything to break his thumb-sucking habit, and he is near despair when his hippie dentist uses hypnosis to "cure" him. Only then does Justin realize that his thumb had served to calm him and make him feel centered in the world. He tries to find solace elsewhere—in Ritalin, fly fishing, Mormonism, and alcohol, to name a few substitutes. Eventually Justin comes to terms with his dysfunctional family and his own particular raison d'être.
A curious reviewing history attended the publication of Thumbsucker. Basing his comments on the novel's title and a short synopsis from a newspaper column, author Tom Wolfe disparaged the book and made acid comments about self-involved authors in general. Kirn found the criticism particularly puzzling in light of the fact that Wolfe had not read the book. A reviewer himself, Kirn suggested that Wolfe had violated the tenets of criticism and that his remarks about Thumbsucker represent "literary cocktail party chatter at its emptiest."
Legitimate reviews of Thumbsucker were more flattering. In Library Journal Robin Nesbitt wrote: "Funny and neurotic, this second novel from New York magazine reviewer Kirn is a good story about growing up and learning to cope." Booklist correspondent Carolyn Kubisz concluded: "Sometimes disturbing, often funny, but always true to life, Kirn tells a unique and engaging story about the pains of adolescence and the acceptance of self."
Ryan Bingham is the protagonist of Up in the Air. A consultant who specializes in firing employees, Ryan travels so much that he has no actual address, living in Airworld, where he gets his news in airport terminals and from USA Today and the Wall Street Journal. Ryan's goal is to reach one million air miles, and as the story opens, he is less than a week away from reaching it.
Christopher Buckley reviewed the novel in the New York Times Book Review, concluding that a story "about a man who lives in a parallel world making his living counseling the downsized could hardly arrive—land—at a more apt time, in this season of dot-coma and summer-air-travel hell. But this is a book that will endure beyond its era. Ryan Bingham is our Man in the Casual Friday Suit, and he is sitting next to us. In fact, he may be us."
Mission to America is set in Montana, where Mason Plato LaVerle is a member of a religious sect called the Aboriginal Fulfilled Apostles. They live in Bluff, where the matriarchal sect that is dedicated to healthy living has had little to do with outside society for so long that they now need new members and new blood, specifically women, to continue their society. In a review in O, the Oprah Magazine, Will Dana commented: "Their spirituality serves as an antidote to the self-centeredness and materialism of the outside world."
Mason is commanded by the Seeress to return with new female members, funded by Ennis Lauer, who ventured into the outer world just long enough to win half a million dollars on a reality television show. He sets out with Elder Elias Stark, with whom he ultimately lands in a Colorado ski town, but not before they have been introduced to drugs and sex. There Mason meets and falls for a former porn star, and Elias moves onto the ranch of a billionaire with health problems.
The novel is unique in its approach to modern life, from fast food to reality television, as it is seen through the eyes of the two men who are being exposed to it for the first time. "Looking at America this way raises many questions about belief, consumerism, and what we call modern life," noted Robin Nesbitt in Library Journal.
Before it was published as a book, The Unbinding was published in serial form on Slate.com. It continues to be available on Kirn's home page. Melissa Fish followed the story online, and noted in a review for 21st Century Lit that for the online version, Kirn provides hyperlinks to sites that are helpful in understanding the plot. "Kirn's use of the Internet as the medium for his novel is not just for the sake of innovation. He uses it instead to incorporate directly into his story the precarious power, for better or worse, of modern technology," wrote Fish.
Kent Selkirk works for AidSat, a company with which customers can constantly stay in touch and that will answer their every question. In order to do this, the company has complete files on each customer. Matt Weiland wrote in the New York Times Book Review: "What distinguishes The Unbinding isn't the timely but the timeless, the deeper things it has to say about the Self. Like the way so many of us now take mass surveillance in stride." Weiland concluded by writing that the novel "draws attention to the lasting damage done to the American expectation of liberty, to the ideals of human rights and happiness at the heart of our experience, by these years of violence and suspicion. And it reminds us that the way we live now may be less important, and have less lasting consequences, than the way now lives through us."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Bomb, summer, 2001, Amy Hempel, review of Up in the Air.
Booklist, October 1, 1992, Ray Olson, review of She Needed Me, p. 238; April 15, 1988, Nathan Ward, review of Boxers, p. 72; July, 1999, Carolyn Kubisz, review of Thumbsucker, p. 1923; June 1, 2001, Brad Hooper, review of Up in the Air, p. 1845.
Chicago Tribune, October 7, 1990, Pinckney Benedict, review of My Hard Bargain, p. 6.
Entertainment Weekly, October 14, 2005, Karen Karbo, review of Mission to America, p. 157.
Kirkus Reviews, July 1, 1990, review of My Hard Bargain, p. 902; August 1, 1992, review of She Needed Me, p. 939; September 1, 1999, review of Thumbsucker, p. 1333; August 1, 2005, review of Mission to America, p. 807.
Library Journal, September 1, 1990, Dean Williams, review of My Hard Bargain, p. 257; September 1, 1992, review of She Needed Me, p. 214; April 15, 1998, review of Boxers, p. 72; August, 1999, Robin Nesbitt, review of Thumbsucker, p. 140; July, 2001, David Dodd, review of Up in the Air, p. 124; October, 2005, Robin Nesbitt, review of Mission to America, p. 67; January 1, 2007, Joshua Cohen, review of The Unbinding, p. 95.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, November 11, 1990, review of My Hard Bargain, p. 6; November 7, 1993, review of She Needed Me, p. 13.
New York Times Book Review, September 30, 1990, Valerie Sayers, review of My Hard Bargain, p. 11; October 4, 1992, Diana Postlethwaite, review of She Needed Me, p. 14; October 31, 1999, Richard Eder, review of Thumbsucker, p. 16; July 8, 2001, Christopher Buckley, review of Up in the Air, p 8; July 15, 2001, review of Up in the Air, p. 26; July 22, 2001, review of Up in the Air, p. 26; December 2, 2001, review of Up in the Air, p. 67; October 6, 2002, Scott Veale, review of Up in the Air, p. 36; December 8, 2002, review of Up in the Air, p. 81; October 16, 2005, Paul Gray, review of Mission to America, p. 13; February 11, 2007, Matt Weiland, review of The Unbinding, p. 14.
O, the Oprah Magazine, November, 2005, Will Dana, review of Mission to America, p. 180; March, 2007, "From Pixel to Print: E-literate," p. 198.
People Weekly, December 24, 1990, Sara Nelson, review of My Hard Bargain, p. 25; October 26, 1992, Sara Nelson, review of She Needed Me, p. 26.
Publishers Weekly, July 27, 1990, Sybil Steinberg, review of My Hard Bargain, p. 223; August 3, 1992, review of She Needed Me, p. 60; August 16, 1999, review of Thumbsucker, p. 57; July 2, 2001, review of Up in the Air, p. 52; July 25, 2005, review of Mission to America, p. 38.
San Francisco Chronicle, July 15, 2001, Kevin Smokler, review of Up in the Air, p. RV67.
Time, October 1, 1990, Paul Gray, review of My Hard Bargain, p. 91; October 12, 1992, review of She Needed Me, p. 91; October 18, 1999, review of Thumbsucker, p. 113; July 16, 2001, review of Up in the Air, p. 72.
USA Today, November 3, 2005, Bob Minzesheimer, review of Mission to America, p. 6D.
Vanity Fair, October, 1992, James Wolcott, review of She Needed Me, p. 112.
Wall Street Journal Western Edition, July 6, 2001, John Freeman, review of Up in the Air, p. 10.
Washington Post, July 1, 2001, "Frequent Flyer," p. 13.
Yale Review, January, 1993, Jane Smiley, review of She Needed Me, p. 148.
Random House Web site,http://www.randomhouse.com/ (December 1, 2007), Larry Weissman, interview.
21st Century Lit,http://21stcenturylit.com/ (December 1, 2007), Melissa Fish, review of The Unbinding.
Walter Kirn Home Page,http://www.walterkirn.com (December 1, 2007).