In Las Vegas, a city famous for its extravagant and perpetual avoidance of reality, even the natural disasters are unnatural. Lake Mead—the largest man made body of water in the world and chief water supply for the city—is draining at a staggering rate. A major drought in the city wouldn’t really be a drought, not technically anyway, but the terrain protesting its own facelift. Las Vegas is rightly a desert. A little over two hundred years ago, this changed. Aberrant rains pummeled the area, bullied its hard sands and dry brush into lush, green meadows. But this transformation wasn’t to last. The new vegetation had no roots, no intentions of staying. Soon enough, the land struggled to reveal its true nature. But Las Vegas was having none of it. The city pressed on, refusing defeat, solving one problem after the next in order to survive.
In the recently published About A Mountain, John D’Agata takes two hundred pages of meticulously researched narrative journalism and uses them to cast a wide net over the city of Las Vegas. More than the location where a story unfolds, it becomes an effective catchall for this: our very own impossible moment in human history. The jig is up, and people are taking notice. We’ve got loads of nuclear waste and no safe way, no place, to store it—seventy-seven thousand tons to be precise, and when it comes to numbers, D’Agata is nothing if not precise. From an array of what should be reliable sources—Senators, scientists, the Department of Energy, sociologists, semiologists—he relays information, the accurate and the inaccurate alongside each other. Weighted equally, the result is disturbing. He shines a light on contradictions, conflations, bent realities. All this in an absurd parade, outing as false the notion of absolute truths.
Enter Yucca Mountain, about ninety-miles outside of Las Vegas.
Until recently, when Obama pulled the plug on the dubious project, Yucca Mountain was the intended site to stash all that nuclear waste. D’Agata reports the various plans for waste storage—dozens of different ways and reasons to essentially shove the waste inside the mountain and patch up the holes. In the dark core of an unassuming mountain—D’Agata calls Yucca “a squat bulge”—the discarded remains of our nuclear pursuits would linger for hundreds of thousands of years. Yucca would become the biggest carpet under which the biggest mess would be swept. The Department of Energy cited a time frame of ten thousand years: an arbitrarily selected number, an effort to soothe the minds of an anxious and skeptical public with the illusion of a finite and presumably manageable period of danger. That comforting number and its five easy-to-imagine zeros persists in heated barroom debates, the local and national media, and all official records, making it all too clear how willing human beings are to accept a truth far closer to fantasy. If Las Vegas and its surroundings are any indication, we straight up crave it.
Las Vegas and its notorious strip are the epitome of fantasy gone fact. Crossing city lines is like cracking the spine of a novel: Vegas demands that we suspend our disbelief in favor of experiencing an alternate reality. The suburbs too: the newest housing developments have lush green lawns and homes built to resemble New England colonials. Voted 2003’s Best New All-American City, D’Agata presents Vegas as a city with a muddled identity, an analogue for the mirage of grave truths, the hard facts, the science and the assumptions of permanence that surround the Yucca Mountain waste disposal project.
More delusion than illusion, Las Vegas evolved rather quickly to believe its own hype. A city built not just on promise, but the promise of promise and so on and so on. In 2003, the New All-American City was also voted the Meanest City in America. With its glitz and gore, its attempts to counter darker realities with porch swings and picket fences, Vegas is more American than America. D’Agata captures all these angles with a well-examined portrait of a region where hyperbole and spectacle mask their opposite. Even the imposing natures of the structures that loom over the strip—mountains themselves, if you want to push an easy metaphor—are revealed as impermanent.
“If you build something and it fails,” a local art historian tells D’Agata, “you blow it up.” The city exists but for the whims of tourism—economics. “The city doesn’t assume anything’s permanent.”
That’s where the analogy gets frightening. If Yucca fails, Las Vegas—at the very least, Las Vegas—goes down with the ship.
About A Mountain leaves a reader with little doubt that the dumpsite is neither good nor safe—an assumption, I’d imagine, most would bring to the reading of such a book. So it’s in degree rather than revelation that the story of Yucca Mountain surprises, its method rather than its madness. As D’Agata trails the proposed project, he is shown, and shows us, again and again that the idea of Yucca Mountain as a safe dumpsite is a farce, a carnival, as phony baloney as the giant sphinx welcoming guests at the Luxor Hotel. D’Agata does all this with prose that is so engaging, so crafted and spare, often poetic in its density, its urgency, that it’s easy to forget he’s banging us over the head with statistic after statistic, poll result after poll result, expert opinion after opinion.
Our proclivities for being duper and duped both established, Yucca Mountain all but vanishes from the text. The book’s main digression—the suicide of an area teenager, Levi Presley—becomes its focus, thus expanding all that came before with one brisk step, a daring switch-a-roo.
During the summer he lives in Las Vegas, D’Agata volunteers at a suicide hotline. Three hundred people a year will kill themselves within the city’s limits. When D’Agata reads about Presley’s death, he’s fixated, convinced he spoke to the boy the night he killed himself. He seeks out Levi’s family, pokes around in his bedroom, visits his school. But D’Agata was wrong. He never spoke to Levi. Still, in his mind, the boy’s death and the Yucca Mountain debate remained enmeshed. In his book, the stories are intertwined from the beginning. They mirror each other, though D’Agata writes, “There is no explanation for the confluence that night of the Senate vote on Yucca Mountain and the death of a boy who jumped from the tower of the Stratosphere…in the center of the brown desert valley.” No reason, forget reason. As informative as About A Mountain is, it’s the book’s humanness, its un-reason, that make it more than an exposé, more than an exercise in narrative journalism, more than “cultural studies” as the market driven back of the book would have you believe. It’s a powerful and potent essay by a writer at the top of his game. It’s likely no coincidence that many of D’Agata’s crisp sentences are reminiscent of Albert Camus’ who wastes no time in his own essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, telling readers that the only philosophical problem worth considering is that of suicide. To be or not to be. All else is permutation. Forget about mountains.
D’Agata tells us very little about Levi Presley, thus the boy achieves mythic proportions. And it’s here, that About A Mountain treads dangerously close to an uncomfortable exploitation of Presley’s death, an easy device to further the book’s narrative drive. This can of worms is smartly avoided by the discretion with which D’Agata both reveals and conceals the details of Presley’s life and his death. He doesn’t try to understand Presley’s suicide. He makes no claims of sovereignty over his obsession. How tempting to do so. How easy. Instead, he details in careful simplicity the path the boy likely took from his bedroom to the Stratosphere’s roof where he jumped. Restraining himself from commentary, D’Agata solidifies his role as a savvy, yet idiosyncratic witness. We trust him not for his authority, but because—like us—he has no answers, no easy path towards wisdom.
“I do not think that Yucca Mountain is a solution or a problem,” D’Agata writes in the paragraph that functions as the book’s hinge; Yucca’s failed spectacle and Presley’s death begging attention on either side, each unaware of the other’s nearness. “I think that what I believe is that the mountain is where we are, it’s what we now have come to—a place that we have studied more than any other parcel of land in the world—and yet it still remains unknown, revealing only the fragility of our capacity to know.” D’Agata’s take on Yucca Mountain is eerily similar to the Las Vegas coroner’s take on suicide: “It’s a manifestation of doubt, the ultimate unknowable. Suicide is an ugly reminder that none of us has the answers.”
Levi Presley and Yucca Mountain anchor About A Mountain. Disparate topics to explore in such a short book, but D’Agata makes it work. He states early on that a number of other horrible things happened the day of the Senate’s Yucca vote—a murder and another suicide among them. Why, then, Levi Presley? In his notes, D’Agata admits to a subtle tweaking of the calendar, shifting a few dates, merging a few months, in favor of “dramatic effect”. (Presley actually died a few days after the Senate vote.) This admission is laudable—necessary these days—but it’s also revelatory. He isn’t giving us a textbook, a newspaper article. Despite his quest for accuracy, he isn’t reporting. D’Agata’s shooting for something else. About A Mountain is a portrait of a mind at work, something that doesn’t always rely on linear time to create logic. Why Levi Presley? Some things just stick. For a writer, these haunting images and events often require a linguistic exorcism. Levi’s presence in D’Agata’s book feels as arbitrary and unavoidable as it must have been in his mind. And, as with any good essay, it’s the writer’s mind as much as his material that we hope to catch a glimpse of.
Yucca Mountain and Levi Presley are static characters. About A Mountain’s narrative tension comes from D’Agata’s style—his quirky lists, his piles of statistics, his wandering digressions, his lengthy quotes from experts and the pointed few moments when he reveals his own fragile opinions. To seamlessly tell two stories at once, to admit they have no reason for being in the same book, and yet make them read as one is the great structural accomplishment of About A Mountain. By the end of the book, one can’t imagine separating the two.
D’Agata’s prose makes sense where there is none; reveals not the story, but the struggle of a mind seeking meaning: “The dream,” he writes, “that if we linger long enough with anything, the truth of its significance is bound to be revealed.” To read on while a mysterious, young boy dies, to imagine seeing him wave his last wave on a casino security tape, is to look ourselves square in the eye and give our own little wave, timid and without the conviction of Levi Presley and the other 299 people who killed themselves in America’s suicide capital in 2003.
There’s not much hope in About A Mountain. And that’s a good thing. For once, the recovery narrative’s close cousin, the solution-based narrative—both so popular in our culture—is thwarted. We’re all implicated in the final pages. There’s no redemption, no last patch of white space dangling one more paragraph, the one we expect to clean up the mess of whatever came before. There’s just a vast freefall, a means to the same end whether you jump, watch, or look away. John D’Agata trades fantasy for fact and ultimately rejects both in favor of the indefinable: Truth. And, as with all significant truths, beautifully crafted literature among them, the effect is equal parts liberating and terrifying.