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Fire in the mountain

A philosophical and ironic, if meandering, exploration of a disputed plan to store nuclear waste in Nevada

The author’s multitude of seemingly unrelated observations does tunnel back, eventually, to the Yucca Mountain project. The author’s multitude of seemingly unrelated observations does tunnel back, eventually, to the Yucca Mountain project. (Laura Rauch/Associated Press/File 2000)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / February 7, 2010

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Reading John D’Agata’s new booklong essay “About a Mountain” is like finding your GPS on the fritz, getting lost, and then, suddenly, realizing you’re on the right road after all, and headed for an epiphany or two.

D’Agata’s style has the off-kilter air of free association about it, as if he’s jumping randomly from first thought to first thought. When you open “About a Mountain,” you know that his subject is Yucca Mountain, outside Las Vegas, and the much-debated plan to turn it into a nuclear waste bin; but D’Agata’s prose skips among descriptions of 1,000 seemingly unrelated objects and observations - of plastic pens, of a highway cloverleaf, of the cost of a towering hotel. You don’t quite follow why he’s devoting page after page to Munch’s “The Scream,” or to a “neon boneyard” where old signs go to die, until you do - and then the book’s connections dawn on you like a reverberating rhyme in a poem.

D’Agata takes such a personalized approach to the essay, it’s hard to deliver a straight-up description of “About a Mountain” without cheating the book. He’s a less self-conscious descendant of David Foster Wallace in the way he transfers his elusive thought processes onto the page. D’Agata, who teaches creative nonfiction at the University of Iowa, spends a period of time living in Las Vegas with his mother and researching the proposed nuclear plan for Yucca. When he learns that Las Vegas, as a county official tells him, “can be wild and it can be fun, but it’s also a place with more suicides than anywhere else in America,” D’Agata’s themes dovetail. The Las Vegas risk-taking temperament serves as a perfect parallel to the mysterious, self-destructive impulse that has led Congress to even consider burying thousands of tons of nuclear waste near a city.

“Yucca Mountain,” D’Agata writes, “would end up holding at capacity, and if approved, the radiological equivalent of 2 million individual nuclear detonations, and 7 trillion doses of lethal radiation, enough to kill every living resident of Las Vegas, Nevada, four and a half million times over.”

Yucca and the city’s suicide rate commingle even more profoundly in “About a Mountain” when D’Agata describes his own experience volunteering for the Las Vegas Suicide Prevention Center hotline and the suicide of a teenaged boy named Levi Presley, who jumped from the top floor of the Stratosphere hotel. D’Agata lists mind-blowing data about the Stratosphere, a seriously failed business venture that is the “tallest building west of the Mississippi”; but the facts about its architecture and financial ruin all come down to a vision of Levi’s death wish on a 114 degree summer night and D’Agata’s wonder at the inexplicability of so many harmful human impulses.

My favorite sections of the book find D’Agata peering into the future to examine the impossibility of communicating clearly with the people of thousands of years from now who’d need to keep a waste-filled Yucca plugged up. Signs built from all substances inevitably deteriorate, and languages evolve and change. Think about how hard it is for us now to understand the Old English of “Beowulf.” Some symbols may stay constant - that’s where “The Scream” comes in - but can we really assume that future generations will understand our warning markers? “What we’re talking about is a species-wide game of Telephone that’s going to last for the next ten millennia,” an anthropologist and Department of Energy expert tells D’Agata.

Earlier, D’Agata has amusingly and dishearteningly chronicled his reporting journeys into the Dickensian mire of government bureaucracy to get solid information, but he stirs up some truly cosmic meditations when he projects forward into a time when humans will be almost alien to us. Talking to them would be like us talking to cavemen. He pushes his narrative to another level, his tangents forcing him and us to think outside the box that’s already outside the box.

As I imagined the future guardians of Yucca Mountain, I found myself thinking about the TV show “Lost” and the solution to its core mystery. D’Agata quotes the work of semiotics expert Thomas Sebeok, who wrote a report for the Department of Energy recommending “a long-term commission that would remain in service for the next ten millennia . . . self-selective in membership, independent of political currents, and licensed to use whatever devices for enforcement that may be at its disposal . . . including those of a folkloristic nature.” If you’ve been watching “Lost,” you can see that this kind of “Atomic Priesthood” would conveniently solve some of the drama’s most persistent questions.

D’Agata writes with an obvious rhythm, often repeating sentence structures to drive home his points. In his look back to Munch, he begins a series of sentences with the phrases “Wouldn’t have ever known,” “Wouldn’t have ever seen,” “Wouldn’t need to glimpse.” At moments, he recalls early Bob Dylan, who in a song like “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” similarly used grammatical repetition to capture his anger. But D’Agata is only half righteous passion and absurdist irony; the other half is hunting for the broadest, most philosophical questions we can think of. Ultimately, his fiercely detailed crazy quilt adds up to something impressively open-ended and prismatic.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com.

ABOUT A MOUNTAIN By John D’Agata

Norton, 236 pp., $23.95