Finalist: About a Mountain, by John D’Agata

About a Mountain
by John D’Agata (W. W. Norton)

If you find yourself in Las Vegas—especially if you’re there to move your mother into a faux New England village—where are you exactly in time and space? And if, while you’re there, you begin brooding about Yucca Mountain, ninety miles to the north, how do you stop? You don’t—not if you’re John D’Agata. Yucca is the mountain in About a Mountain—a place the United States hopes to store “77,000 tons of spent nuclear waste…the radiological equivalent of 2 million individual nuclear detonations.” There have been tens of thousands of pages of systematic study of Yucca Mountain. None are as eloquent or cut as close to the bone as D’Agata’s decidedly unsystematic study. He’s an investigator on the trail of a ghost from the future, a nightmare from the present. D’Agata wears a bland, almost credulous expression, because he’s visiting a world which at face value—taken completely on its own terms—is utterly insane. No additional irony is required on the part of the author, not even a sideways glance. He stands at the midpoint between the end of the Pleistocene—10,000 years ago—and a point 10,000 years in the future, when even if Yucca Mountain preserves its lethal treasure intact, there will almost certainly be no way for us—now—to tell them—then—what the mountain contains. This is a chillingly entertaining book, full of unanswerable questions, full of worries and doubts, a nonfiction Strangelove.

—Verlyn Klinkenborg, Selection Committee

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