Correction to This Article
This review of John D'Agata's book "About a Mountain," which centers on the federal proposal to store nuclear waste at the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada, incorrectly said that a supposedly corrosion-proof alloy developed to contain the waste dissolved in water within minutes. The alloy started to corrode in water within minutes.

Book review: 'About a Mountain' by John D'Agata

The south portal tunnel entrance of Yucca Mountain, the planned site of a national nuclear waste dump near Mercury, Nev., is shown in this June 25, 2002 file photo.
The south portal tunnel entrance of Yucca Mountain, the planned site of a national nuclear waste dump near Mercury, Nev., is shown in this June 25, 2002 file photo. (Joe Cavaretta - AP)

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By Bill Gifford
Sunday, March 28, 2010

ABOUT A MOUNTAIN

By John D'Agata

Norton. 236 pp. $23.95

Nuclear energy would surely rank among mankind's most miraculous inventions, but for one fatal flaw: Its byproducts will remain deadly for pretty much the rest of human history. That didn't stop us from dotting the land with nuclear power plants, generating waste for which we still don't have a good disposal method. Imagine living without trash pickup -- and your trash is radioactive. That's basically what the nuclear industry has been doing for the past six decades.

In the early 1980s, Congress finally came up with a solution to this problem: Bury all the waste deep inside Yucca Mountain, a nondescript hump of arid, unwanted land, deep in the Nevada desert. Isolated, dry and protected from the elements, it seemed the perfect place to store millions of gallons of toxic material. But Yucca also happened to be just 90 minutes outside Las Vegas, America's fastest-growing city. As Vegas grew, it morphed from a desert outpost that people occasionally visited to a sprawling, ultra-fast-growing city where more and more people actually lived.

Among the newcomers was writer John D'Agata, who moved to Vegas with his mother, an Eastern transplant, in the spring of 2002. The city's development boom was still going strong, and she bought a house in one of the subdivisions metastasizing across the desert valley. D'Agata got drawn into the Yucca Mountain story and began to investigate. At the same time, he became curious about the suicide of a teenage boy named Levi Presley, who jumped from the Stratosphere tower in Las Vegas around the time the Senate voted to shut down Yucca mountain.

This is rich literary material, and D'Agata comes impeccably blurbed, by no less than Annie Dillard and the late David Foster Wallace. "About a Mountain" is far from the dire policy tome that a more traditional journalist might have penned on the subject; D'Agata was clearly aiming higher, hoping to join the league of literary Las Vegas observers like Hunter S. Thompson and Nick Tosches. But the writer he most resembles is Joan Didion circa 1978, only instead of Me-decade California, his subject is Vegas. And suicide. And, quite possibly, the end of human civilization.

It quickly becomes clear that storing nuclear waste inside Yucca mountain was a colossally bad idea. The inside of the mountain was in fact not dry and arid, as had been assumed, but dripping with water. A supposedly corrosion-proof miracle alloy was developed to contain the waste, but it turned out to dissolve in water within minutes. D'Agata's subject is terrific, and he approaches it as a naive newcomer, knowing as little about Yucca as the average Las Vegan. As he digs deeper into the story, he reveals a plan, and a political culture (not to mention a local real-estate market) gone utterly delusional. Washingtonians will appreciate the nifty section, early on, where the author attempts to track the shifting "facts" tossed out during the course of a Senate debate on Yucca Mountain. (Surprise, surprise: None of the Senators seemed to have read the bill, much less the 65,000-page study they were passionately debating.)

There were deeper flaws to the plan, much deeper. Such as the problem of transporting the waste from all around the country, where it currently sits at nuclear power-plant sites, to Nevada. Most of it would have to go through the city. One single highway accident, and we would "forfeit Las Vegas to the desert," as one of D'Agata's sources says. Even if all the waste did arrive safely, then what? Yucca Mountain was supposed to hold the radioactive waste for 10,000 years -- an arbitrarily arrived-at figure which raises a whole new problem: How do you mark the site to warn away future generations, millennia from now?

No existing language would be intelligible then; Old English, D'Agata notes, is barely 1,000 years old -- and completely unintelligible to modern ears. After a long, elaborate and sometimes absurd process, in which input was solicited from linguists, writers, performance artists and MENSA, the powers behind Yucca settled on something based on Edvard Munch's "The Scream," that expression of primal human horror that needs no translating.

While there is some terrific writing and reporting here, D'Agata sometimes gets in the way of his own story. He makes you think, "Wow, look at that Writer, writing," rather than thinking about whatever it is he wants you to think about. There are lists that go on for pages, and an awful lot of one-sentence paragraphs.

And, as he admits in his endnotes, he conflated scenes (of his visits to Yucca, for example) and created composite characters and even altered chronologies "for dramatic effect." Which is brave of him to admit -- plenty of other journalists have gotten away with worse -- but at the same time, it undercuts his reportorial conceit. Does he care more about "dramatic effect," one wonders, or the truth? But the most serious issue here is that this book really tells two very different stories, of Yucca Mountain and of a suicide in 21st-century Las Vegas, and they just don't quite hang together. In the text, he asserts that the teen's suicide occurred the same night as a key Senate vote to shut down Yucca; in his notes, though, D'Agata admits that "in reality" the events were three days apart. This is called fudging.

One could argue that our dalliance with nuclear power constitutes a sort of slow-motion societal suicide pact, but somehow that point is never quite articulated. Instead the story jumps around from subtopic to subtopic, often without warning; the writer sometimes just seems lost in his notes, unable (or worse, unwilling) to connect the dots. That's his job, not ours.

A shorter, tighter version of his suicide-in-Vegas story appeared in the January issue of the Believer, and, in that form, it was one of the more compelling investigations I've read in a while. This scattershot volume, while brilliant in spots, would have benefited from similar editorial discipline.

Bill Gifford is editor at large of Men's Journal.


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