Just read “About a Mountain” by John D’Agata. There are still very few books more ambitious than travel guides about Las Vegas. I think ”About a Mountain” is the most surprising and interesting since film critic Dave Thomson’s “In Nevada” (1999).
My one serious complaint is that for a new book it seems oddly dated. And, even worse, seems dated in a way that is meant less to help readers than to avoid dealing with more recent events. I compare this to a Richard Dawkins book on evolution I read recently where the author made notes on the latest news into the galleys for the book. “About a Mountain” keeps the book’s imagery and themes consistent at the expense of clarity on the current state of events.
Bob Stupak, the creator of the Stratosphere, is still alive in these pages. The financial history of Stratosphere is written to make the property look like a loser and thus ends before Carl Icahn realizes a fortune from his sale of the casino. The author points out that you can find room specials at Paris and Luxor like reporting some sort of scandal. Is there any hotel on the Strip that doesn’t offer room specials? Hasn’t that been true for over a year? He also refers to Showbiz magazine, which has not existed for years, like it was still hanging out in hotel rooms. These are small points that show the larger problem with “About A Mountain.”
Vegas moves quickly; but for a 2010 book “About A Mountain” seems to be deliberately dated. At times the author is talking in the seeming present about a different Vegas– mostly Vegas around 2005, but never entirely placed in that year or updated to now. There are some good sections, especially on the horrible way science was manipulated in the idea to store nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain. But there is also a lot of padding here. The reference to Showbiz magazine is part of an exhausting number of pages listing everything that would be contaminated should nuclear waste spill in Vegas; as the magazine’s inclusion on the list suggests, he includes the entire Strip, item by item, with a special interest in sex advertising.
In the book’s notes D’Agata opens the fine print by stating that he has conflated years and people for “dramatic” reasons. I understand this book makes pretense to art (David Foster Wallace has a blurb on the cover to make that clear). But ”About a Mountain” is clumsy art because bending reality for rhetorical/dramatic reasons should be called fiction. This approach seems like cheating on the art side. The book is set up around the basic questions of journalism: Who, What, When, Where, How, Why. Each chapter is titled by one of these questions. But “Why” gets the most chapters including the final three chapters of the book. “Why” are the opinions the author wants to quote and offer. Significantly, “When” only gets one short chapter early on.
This demotion of “When” draws less attention to the problem with “About a Mountain” as journalism: “When” matters, because that is how readers know the current state of Yucca, the mountain, the book is “about.” How relevant is this book to right now? Or, maybe, a more a fair question to ask, when is “About A Mountain” situated in the Yucca Mountain history line? The facts on the ground in “About A Mountain” have reporting that consistently peters out at different moments that seem to share only that, from the writer’s points in “Why,” this is a convenient time to stop his factual retelling.
“About A Mountain” is a history book that still wants to grab the frisson of being contemporary. With little relevant to the Yucca Mountain issues of 2010, the book published this month allows the time-line to become obscured despite lots of detail and research that litter the narrative. That is a bad approach to underlie a book that has enough pretense to journalism to include more than 30 pages of notes and citations at the end.