About a Mountain

JOHN D’AGATA has written a book about one of the nation’s most nagging environmental concerns, but he does not come at his topic as an eco-scribe — and his style is both refreshing and effective, the kind we would expect from one of America’s best contemporary essayists. About a Mountain is an excellent literary work, but it is also a relentless and thorough examination of our government’s dodgy plan to store high-level nuclear waste inside Yucca Mountain, a desert-island mountain range just outside the city of Las Vegas, Nevada.

There’s a cultural narrative here too, and it’s tempting to mistake the biting, nearly gleeful irony of D’Agata’s prose for an outright mockery of modern American life. But there is also this: the epigraph “To whomever I did not help”; the sobering statistics he ticks off with the odd poetry and genius of Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man; and his delicate obsession with a youth who committed suicide by leaping from the top of Las Vegas’s tallest hotel and casino — a teenage boy with whom D’Agata believes he spoke just before his death.

The book’s structure is divided, literally, into the tenets of a good investigation. Of the “Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How” sections, it is the Why that matters most to D’Agata. It comes not once as a section heading, but rather in several refrains. And with each remorseful repetition the reader spirals steadily downward into the subterranean catacombs of our culture.

In America, D’Agata hints, such dark psycho-social spaces are buried beneath a mountainous yet unfounded sense of sanguinity, and it is this deeper issue that fascinates as the author engages with Yucca Mountain public relations representatives and Las Vegas residents alike to expose both the absurdity of the nuclear waste proposal as well as the public’s giddy ignorance of its dangers. This approach coincides all too well with Barbara Ehrenreich’s recent book: Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. The title says it all. “We need to brace ourselves for a struggle against terrifying obstacles,” Ehrenreich writes, “both of our own making and imposed by the natural world. And the first step is to recover from the mass delusion that is positive thinking.”

Through this lens of unfounded optimism, D’Agata has us view the twin mirages that stand side by side in the Nevada desert: the city of endless dreams juxtaposed with a mountain of eternal stability. D’Agata works his way into both, fingering the various fissures in each. In each case, we see how a slight shift would result in cataclysmic breaches of environmental, social, economic, and even national security. Or perhaps they have already occurred. For among the quantitative lists that so define About a Mountain are those that expose the dream of Las Vegas as the place in which more people kill themselves annually than any other city in America. It is also the city with the highest number, per capita, of smokers, teenage drug users, drunk-driving arrests, high-school dropouts, household bankruptcies, and divorces. Despite all these grim statistics, as D’Agata points out, Time named Las Vegas “the New All-American City” and Retirement Places Rated calls it “the nation’s most desirable retirement community.”

About a Mountain is ultimately a dirge for the myriad life forms lost in the destructive and deluded wake of the American Dream. The book repeats in modern terms the story of leaving the garden, of acquiring the poisonous knowledge that separates us from the sublime, where the natural world and the spiritual intersect. Only in modern times, the loss is complicated by a false vitality, a synthetic vibrancy, constructed not only to mimic the passionate pulse of biota but also to confuse our connection to anything greater than ourselves. And so we desperately search for the thing that will make our situation acceptable — knowing already we’ll probably come up empty-handed. In D’Agata’s own words, “If I point to something seeming like significance, there is the possibility that nothing real is there.”