A truckload of literary waste

I love essays. This puts me in a distinct minority of America's readers, who seem to prefer other forms of writing these days. Yet many fine essays are still being written and published.

The word "essay," in the original French, means "an attempt" -- a writer's effort to explore and understand a subject or question. Often, essays have a leisurely, meandering quality as the author examines ideas and emotions, discarding some and tracking others to find out where they lead.

Essays can be about anything, from a walk in the park to the most contentious political issue. In trying to persuade, enlighten or entertain, essayists employ all the tools in a writer's toolbox: storytelling, description, research, metaphor, irony, humor and the occasional bleat of outrage. Essays often are intimate -- more a personal journey than an objective report.

It was against this backdrop that I had high hopes for John D'Agata's new book, "About a Mountain." Generally marketed as a book-length essay about Yucca Mountain, it promised to deliver a thoughtful meditation on the cultural conundrums of the proposed nuclear waste dump in the Nevada desert.

Alas, "About a Mountain" doesn't do that. Despite D'Agata's writerly credentials, the book is a steaming pile of words.

Start with the fact that much of the book is not really about Yucca Mountain. In the early 2000s, D'Agata's mother moved to Las Vegas. The author helped with the relocation and ended up staying about five months.

Hanging out in Las Vegas, D'Agata apparently took an interest in Yucca Mountain, which was getting a lot of news coverage around that time. He went to the U.S. Department of Energy's local information office. He toured the dump site 90 miles northwest of town. He researched some of the scientific arguments against storing radioactive waste there.

But that's only part of it. D'Agata also did a lot of observing in Las Vegas. He stopped by the Neon Boneyard to look at the old signs. He pondered the Stratosphere Tower's architectural merits. He visited the coroner's office. He joined in the events commemorating the Las Vegas centennial.

All of this amounts to ... not much, a herky-jerky hodgepodge of half-finished thoughts, without a discernable point.

I consider myself a patient reader. I'm willing to give a writer a lot of time and benefit of the doubt, hoping the whole will possess more value than the parts. But I can't say that about this book.

D'Agata is sloppy with facts. For example, he describes the Spaghetti Bowl as the "intersection of Interstates 15 and 80." This is a befuddling mistake, considering that I-80 courses through Reno, 400 miles north of Las Vegas.

Then the author delivers a doozy. Describing the worst-case calamity if a truck hauling nuclear waste crashed in the Spaghetti Bowl, D'Agata fears the contamination of "the Strip's largest hotels, less than 2,000 feet from the Spaghetti Bowl." It's true that some hotels stand within shooting distance of the Spaghetti Bowl, but they're the small ones in downtown Las Vegas. The "Strip's largest hotels" are considerably farther away.

I might have been able to forgive these dumb mistakes if sloppiness was D'Agata's only sin. But a careful reading of "About a Mountain" reveals he also has taken liberties with the facts.

The book starts out describing events associated with the Las Vegas centennial, which occurred in 2005. But D'Agata blends these experiences with his narrative of events that happened while he helped his mother move here several years earlier.

I have to suspect D'Agata was trying to obscure how old most of his material is. His description of the political drama playing out over Yucca Mountain dates to 2002 and 2003. Quite a lot has happened with Yucca Mountain since then, including that the project is now essentially dead.

In small type in the endnotes, D'Agata acknowledges that he "conflated time in this way for dramatic effect." He also admits to creating composite characters and merging separate events. I don't see how the book benefited from these deceptions.

D'Agata's primary literary device is drawing a poignant parallel between Yucca Mountain and the death of a local teen who jumped from the Stratosphere. But D'Agata purposely alters reality, saying the suicide and a crucial U.S. Senate vote on Yucca Mountain occurred on the same night. They actually happened three days apart.

My take on "About a Mountain" appears to represent a minority view. Critics for The New York Times and Los Angeles Times both have praised it. The L.A. critic, David Ulin, described the book as "exquisite," while the New York reviewer, Charles Bock, called it "engrossing" and "breathtaking." But, in a redeeming paragraph, Bock, who grew up in Las Vegas, reveals that he, too, was troubled by D'Agata's blasé attitude about accuracy.

The high-profile praise for this book undoubtedly casts me in the role of literary troglodyte, incapable of appreciating D'Agata's mash-up masterpiece. With all due respect, I'm right on this one. "About a Mountain" is a failed attempt. In the process of trying to push the creative boundaries of the essay form, D'Agata sacrifices factual integrity as well as comprehensibility.

Geoff Schumacher (gschumacher@reviewjournal.com) is the Review-Journal's director of community publications. His column appears Friday.