"To be a fan of 'The Book of Mormon' " — the actual book, not the musical — "is to walk a lonesome road," writes Avi Steinberg. It is probably worth noting here that Steinberg is not a Mormon but a Jew who became obsessed with the central scripture of the Church of Latter-Day Saints. Its author, Joseph Smith, was "one of the first ravished souls to take on the big American literary project . . . to create America in words and deliver it to the people in a book as big and shameless and unruly and haunted and deeply problematic as the country itself." And Smith's audacious sequel to the Testaments, both old and new, Steinberg contends, just may be the great American novel.
He sets out to test this bold proclamation by visiting the real-world lands thought to correspond to the book's mythical landscape. Thus "The Lost Book of Mormon: A Journey Through the Mythic Lands of Nephi, Zarahemla, and Kansas City, Missouri" is anything but arrid criticism. Steinberg's epic voyage is one born of admiration, and it never loses the thrill of discovery.
"The Book of Mormon" begins in the storied destination of Jerusalem. For Steinberg, born in Israel but raised in the United States, this inversion feels profound. "The Book of Mormon," which declared that a New Jerusalem would be built on the American continent, is banned in present-day Israel for obscure bureaucratic reasons, and Steinberg's quixotic quest to find a copy brings him to the brink of "Jerusalem syndrome," an actual psychiatric diagnosis for the unhealthy conflation of scripture with real life.
Next he follows the story to the New World, embarking on a two-week archaeological bus tour of Guatemala and Mexico with a bevy of Mormon families, to get the "Mesoamerican flavor" of sites mentioned in "The Book of Mormon." The tour leader is in earnest: He "wanted us to understand that the full truth of The Book of Mormon isn't known, that much is yet to be revealed . . . As far as the archeology went . . . it could sharpen our knowledge . . . [and] strengthen our faith."
Steinberg is not out to make fun of such earnestness, but he is out to have fun on this pilgrimage. As the sole non-Mormon, he is greeted like a celebrity by the other travelers, and he lives up to the role. He careens around narrow mountain passes to Lake Aititlan (or the Waters of Mormon), learns obscure game-hunting techniques from his new Mormon friends and wrangles a tour of the forbidden hotel room where Mel Gibson stayed while filming "Apocalypto."
But it's in the second half of the book where Steinberg really joins the show — literally, when he joins the cast of thousands at the massive annual pageant staged at the foot of a hill in upstate New York, where Joseph Smith reported that he dug up the gold plates inscribed with the story of The Book of Mormon.
He revels in the cheerful juxtaposition of masses of humans writhing and marauding in sanctioned theatricality that would put Cecil B. DeMille (whose set designer, apparently, also worked on Mormon films) to admiring shame. "The casting call in the meadow was a scene from a benign but eventful nightmare. To my left, dozens of teenage girls were dropping to their knees, clutching their hearts, dying theatrically, their soft suburban faces twisted into masks of deep Oriental suffering, each trying to perish more slowly and more anciently than the next."
The wild Mayan-Hebrew hybrid mythology of the book gives rise to kings that look like linebackers, and the absurdity is not lost on our fearless narrator. Throughout the book, Steinberg gracefully navigates the tricky line between fan and voyeur, enjoying the pageantry but never at the cost of resorting to caricature.
With 150 million copies in circulation, in 83 languages, "The Book of Mormon" "is in it for the long run." Maybe, Steinberg slyly suggests, it's time we get used to it. "Maybe it would be better if we owned it." In "The Lost Book of Mormon,'' that's exactly what Steinberg does — owns the book in all its glorious strangeness.
Brook Wilensky-Lanford is the author of "Paradise Lust: Searching for the Garden of Eden,'' and the editor of the online religion magazine Killing the Buddha.