Scott Esposito on John D'Agata

With the Desert Surrounding 

an essay by Scott Esposito

I. City of Extremes

Is it possible for any one city to represent a nation as diverse and complex as America? Perhaps it is, in times of major crises, when America’s imagination is momentarily fixed upon one place that seems unfairly cursed. Immediately after 9/11, New York became a national icon around which to pool our grieving. And in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans momentarily transformed into a reflection of America’s ongoing, flawed effort to build a truly equal, multicultural society. But what if the crisis is drawn out: not a terrorist attack or a hurricane, not an isolated event, but an existential nightmare of our own making? What if the crisis is our very inability to properly build a just and sustainable society, so clearly visible today? Could there be a city to represent this kind of a crisis, one that is much more prolonged and intangible in nature? If an icon were possible for the sociological and economic catastrophe currently known as the Great Recession, it might be Las Vegas.

During the first decade of the new millennium, Las Vegas was the nation’s fastest-growing metropolitan area, an immense and spreading lump of suburban sprawl stuck improbably in the middle of an incandescent desert. This paradox was in keeping with the city’s reputation as a locale that thrives on the suspension of reality; but now, as is true everywhere in the United States, reality is catching up with Vegas: it is the U.S. city with the largest percentage of homeowners in default to their lenders or owing more than the home is actually worth, and it continually flirts with ecological disaster. Only Los Angeles, with its Hollywood epics and its disturbingly normalized attitude toward earthquakes, mudslides, forest fires, and gang violence, can give Las Vegas a run for the title of America’s apocalypse capital.

In About a Mountain (Norton, 2010), his vivid, lyric, book-length essay on Las Vegas, John D’Agata presents a city caught between two very different but related kinds of disaster. On one side, we have Yucca Mountain, a proposed repository for all the nuclear waste the United States has produced since 1950. The waste itself is awful, perverse stuff, so noxious that no one will tell D’Agata how much time must pass before it loses its deadly potency. When he finally finds someone to give him an answer — 10,000 years, almost certainly not long enough by a long shot — D’Agata begins to follow the logical lines of absurdity, his favorite approach. For instance, he asks, how do we create a warning sign that will dissuade future sentient beings from opening up the mountain and will remain intelligible for such a span of time? It is difficult even to create a substance that isn’t likely to wear down long before then, let alone come up with a signifier or a message in a language that will be intelligible at some point so far in the future.

The disaster that D’Agata sets opposite the Yucca Mountain is the mind of a young man who has chosen to kill himself by leaping off the observation deck of the Stratosphere hotel, the tallest casino in Las Vegas, three days after the U.S. Senate voted to authorize the decades-in-the-making waste dump.1 Precisely what conditions would lead a teenager — one with a network of friends, a healthy extra-curricular life, and a nice car — to wait over an hour in line, ride up an elevator packed with people, climb a ten-foot fence, and leap to a grizzly death in front of thousands of bystanders, is the equally inscrutable matter that D’Agata counterpoints to that of the mountain. The terrifying conclusion to which D’Agata leads us is that the question of suicide is just as thorny, vortex-like, and fundamentally unanswerable as the question of the most dangerous waste product of the world’s most technologically advanced nation.

Those who believe that deep down the American Dream is essentially illusional in nature — or those who believe at least that in the contemporary America of the Iraq War, the sub-prime lending fiasco, and Fox News, the truth is never quite in sync with the facts — will find much to engage in About a Mountain. Early on, D’Agata tells us that las vegas is Spanish for “the meadows,” the place acquiring its name by deceiving early explorers with a meteorological fluke that has long since quit the land; true to its name, the Vegas that D’Agata describes is one determined to sell itself as an oasis for a nation in flight, its endless prefabricated neighborhoods a perfect refuge for, among others, the harried citizens of the nation’s most populous state, who are eager to escape out-of-control gangs, the Big One, illegal immigrants, and, of course, excessive taxation.

D’Agata also finds Las Vegas as a city perpetually in flux, and in this process of continually exchanging one mask for another, the city shows its true face. Those in the know advise D’Agata that no casino should be built to last permanently. Any successful business in Vegas needs to be agile enough to maneuver with the whims of the market. Thus, the Stratosphere Casino and Hotel has become a widely-despised eyesore after barely ten years of existence — but it will be almost impossible to remove: imploding it presents logistical impossibilities that seemingly no one foresaw when they built it up in the middle of the Strip. D’Agata tells us how the Stratosphere’s stock price has plummeted to virtually nothing, how the business has never actually run a profit, how each day it seems like more and more of a boondoggle. Yet the clear implication is not that the Stratosphere is at fault for losing money; rather, its mortal sin is that it has stranded itself out where it has no possibility of ducking away to safety once its mammoth grand opening boom begins to decay.

With insights into “the meadows” and the Stratosphere, D’Agata cleverly establishes Las Vegas as a quintessentially American place, a vision of America as seen in “Death of a Salesman” and The Great Gatsby, that of a nation enraptured by wealth and success despite what it surely must realize about how easily pierced and ultimately hollow they are. D’Agata’s most important contribution to this tradition is finding contemporary variants of these American obsessions: our mania for trash in a culture of mass consumption; the debt we run in order to live lives of plenty; the decay of democratic debate and transparency under the aegis of 24-hour cable news; the culture of greed and buck-passing that brought on the Great Recession; the mountain outside of Vegas we want to fill with nuclear waste.

In the early chapters of About a Mountain, D’Agata’s masterfully evokes the feel of America in the lackluster 2000s, but as one rushes past these sparsely filled pages, the chapter titles abandon the firm and newsy headings “Where” “When,” “How,” and “What,” and in exchange simply repeat “Why,” “Why,” “Why.” It is later in the book that D’Agata leaves behind the material concerns of a country on edge and takes up existential questions that have been simmering beneath.

In the penultimate chapter, a doctor of psychology explains to D’Agata that humans scream, “because we need someone’s help. It’s really as simple as that. It’s an instinct we developed hundreds of thousands of years ago . . . and it’s so simple a call that is so deeply ingrained in us that we can understand the meaning of a scream from anyone.” We further learn that English-speakers in Santa Barbara can understand the gist of screams made by the Tsimane in Bolivia simply by the pitch at which the scream is made, while some researchers argue that modernity has rendered screaming more or less useless as a form of specialized communication in urban environments, because we are all so used to it.

After setting the table with this examination of the role of the scream as communication, its primal origins and modern ineffectuality, D’Agata startlingly returns to the dissection of Las Vegas once more:

What we are likely to see [surrounding Yucca mountain to warn off trespassers], according to recent reports from the Department of Energy, is a small series of twenty-foot-high monuments at the site. They’ll be carved in the shape of pyramids and made from local granite. On their surfaces will be inscriptions in English about the site, plus the date the waste was buried, the date it will be safe, and a small engraved image in the apex of each stone that reproduces the anguished face from Edvard Munch’s The Scream.

From here, the chapter moves into even more digressive, disturbing territory. Edvard Munch, D’Agata explains, was walking on the waterfront in August 1883 when he saw what for most who witnessed it with him was a beautiful sunset; but for Munch it was “an infinite scream passing through nature.” D’Agata advances the theory that what Munch “heard” was the “second-largest noise ever heard by human beings,” the eruption of Krakatoa on the other side of the world.

 A great essayist would have called it a day at this point. The cycle from natural expression to its loss in modern alienation, returning once more to the overwhelming power of nature’s expression, is complete. D’Agata, however, after making that horrible connection, employs one of his favorite techniques, the jump-cut:

. . . by August 28 British offices in Delhi were reporting having seen a bank of yellow clouds at night, by August 29 they were orange in Madrid, and by August 31 they mixed with moisture over London from where a cold front pushed the dust and rain westward over Norway, where the nights were very windy, and where light revealed that dust as red in skies that bled already.

His name was Levi Presley, the Vegas papers said.

Sixteen years old and from the north edge of town.

 When used in movies, the jump cut is a powerful way to suggest a deeper, perhaps metaphorical link between two disparate events. If a filmmaker wants to make the suggested link even more explicit, she can use a continuity cut, wherein an action happening in one shot is completed in the next, usually in a completely different context. That is what D’Agata does here, transposing the mental anguish that would lead Munch to see unbearable pain in a beautiful sunset into the mind of Levi Presley, the young man who leapt to his death for no clear reason. Just as the scream that shouts from within the Yucca Mountain nuclear dump is a scream we all must hear and react to, so too is the scream that D’Agata implicitly posits was inside Presley’s head. The chapter ends with a lyric, poem-like a sprinkling of related facts and thoughts dancing around this horrid scream, gearing up for the book’s final chapter, a demented, seven-page recreation of the night Presley died. It is a singular ending to a remarkable flight through implication and logic.

In choosing Las Vegas as the place to embody such extreme events as suicide and existential wailing, D’Agata has made a wise choice. He is the latest in a long line of cultural critics to see the city and the desert surrounding it as perfect embodiments of quintessentially modern ailments. His critique ably follow the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, who was fascinated by America’s postmodern cities and its great Western deserts and in a book (simply titled America) that covers these subjects described Las Vegas as a city curiously empowered by the incestuous intermingling of opposites:

The intensity of gambling reinforced by the presence of the desert surrounding the town. The air-conditioned freshness of the gaming rooms, as opposed to the radiant heat outside. The challenge of all the artificial lights to the violence of the sun rays. Night of gambling sunlit on all sides; the glittering darkness of these rooms in the middle of the desert. Gambling itself is a desert form, inhuman, uncultured, initiatory, a challenge to the natural economy of value, a crazed activity on the fringes of exchange.

Although the city is his focus, D’Agata attempts more here than a simple explanation of Las Vegas — his ambition is to channel through the image of this city the malaise and problems that face such an enormous, diverse country. He has bitten off a huge amount of material for 200 quick-reading pages, and he succeeds tremendously in giving his book a poetic logic that makes it capable of carrying far more meaning than the size alone would suggest. About a Mountain is a feast of conjecture for a country in need of explanations; it is a finely crafted document that pulls out just about every trick in the essay-writer’s book. It is also a deeply flawed work that betrays the major challenges of the so-called lyric essay. They are flaws that run precisely counter to D’Agata’s purpose in essaying to understand.

II. About an Author

If there were such a thing as Emerging American Essayist Laureate, John D’Agata would be it. In a literary landscape where essay-writing is typically reserved for journalistic think-pieces, John McPhee, and mid-list novelists looking to cultivate new audiences, John D’Agata has endeavored to reinvent the form once again and raise it onto an equal branch of literature’s family tree. About a Mountain is D’Agata’s second book, following upon his widely discussed, frequently misunderstood, and occasionally acclaimed collection of essays Halls of Fame. He is also the editor of a projected 2,000-page trilogy of essay anthologies that counts among its contributors Joan Didion, Susan Sontag, John McPhee, Montaigne, Mallarmé, and Ziusudra of Sumer. As a nation hungry for answers begins to look more and more past fiction to essayists to explain what is happening to America, John D’Agata is among those leading the advance guard.

D’Agata does not write formulaic essays. He doesn’t write anything nearly of the sort. His essays are so John D’Agatian that the best you can do to describe them is to steal from their author. So, two quotes, both from D’Agata’s first book, Halls of Fame. The first: “An essay that becomes a lyric is an essay that has killed itself.” By that rubric, D’Agata’s essays stand there, loaded shotgun in hand, debating furiously whether or not to stick their big toe in the trigger.

The second quote comes in two parts, and it is found at the beginning of D’Agata’s essay “Flat Earth Map: An Essay.” In the first part, D’Agata quotes from Dr. Paul A. Riffle’s book, Reading Maps: An Introduction: “A legend is a symbolization of information in a map; it gives, in abbreviated form, most of the facts that are needed to decode a map and enable readers to plot trips into heretofore unknown terrains.” Simple enough, since most of us are familiar with legends of this sort from our school days. D’Agata then footnotes this prosaic description with the following: “For example, Once upon a time the world climbed up a tall tree toward heaven, but when their god looked down and howled at them then the world turned red as fruit leaves and then fell, could be read as a legend.” We have taken a typically D’Agatan turn; per the essayist’s semantically inclined logic, a legend in the narrative sense serves the same function as a legend in the cartographical sense: it helps us decode this “map,” that is D’Agata’s essay, “Flat Earth Map.”

These quotes draw the eye to D’Agata’s love of wordplay, as well as his belief that one should be able to take many routes through an essay. For instance, his “Martha Graham, Audio Description Of” is an annotated index regarding the life of the dancer Martha Graham. The headings are organized alphabetically, but their annotations practically force readers to map out their own route through the piece, following various logics and trains of thought. Not all of D’Agata’s work is as loose as this, but all of it is written to leave plenty of space for the reader to maneuver. The logical leaps, synecdoche, and the elusive gestures with which D’Agata plays like marbles are more commonly found in lyric poetry, yet he molds them into recognizable prose by constructing them with the beefy sentences and real-life facts that we generally view (perhaps somewhat wrongly) as anathema to lyric poetry. D’Agata’s essays are essays with the heart of the lyric, and from time to time they invert or reinvent themselves as you read them.

Judging by the reviews of Halls of Fame, D’Agata’s first volume left a number of readers piqued but perturbed. In the pages of the Village Voice, for instance, Sarah Vowell sagely counseled young D’Agata that if he ever managed to dumb down his prose just enough, he’d have something really good. Unfortunately, such is the lot of the innovative writer when confronted by the middlebrow hack. While it is true that D’Agata’s essays are relentless, they’re also constantly intriguing. If anything, their sin is a plenitude of significance, not a lack. There are certainly worse things to say about a piece of writing. The first time through one of the essays in Halls of Fame can be overwhelming — albeit in a charge-you-up good way — but if you keep at them, letting your eye linger and wander through a second and third reading, the water will begin to drain from around D’Agata’s carefully submerged connections.

Halls of Fame is a marvelously inventive book, though it does suffer from the sense that D’Agata sometimes forces his insights, and is more often than that guilty of over-writing. Take, for instance, this paragraph-long sentence that dearly wants to be beautiful, but only manages, despite the obvious lyric exertion, to be showy:

His words emit circles, whip bubbles around our heads. His sentences wrap around the bus and greet themselves in midair. All the way to the dam the bus rumbles inside this cloud, the date slips steadily away, the tour transforms into a silent scratchy film that is slowly flitting backward through frames of older dreams.

Reading this, it’s clear that D’Agata wants to imbue his writing with a sense of ineffable wonder, but this straining only makes his prose imprecise. For instance, one wonders how a man’s sentences can greet themselves, since he can only speak one at a time. Likewise, “silent scratchy film” is one adjective too many, and the attempt to wrestle the whole digression into the territory of a dream simply fails.

The evolution in D’Agata’s style from Halls to About a Mountain isn’t so much about tamping down on his creative drive as it is about channeling that energy into prose that’s lighter, but packs more punch. Few paragraphs in About a Mountain reach the length of the one quoted above; rather, in his latest book, D’Agata achieves remarkable effects with paragraphs composed solely of one-sentence fragments, often strung along in packs that run down the page. The cumulative effect is to give his prose a sense of weightlessness, skipping from thought to thought, phrase to phrase. This lightness has made D’Agata’s already well-trained eye for irony all the sharper, as well as potentiating his frequent leaps in logic. 

In About a Mountain, D’Agata also proves adept at pursuing a single line of inquiry for much longer stretches than what was typical in his early essays; where most sections in Halls of Fame last for a page or two at most, in About a Mountain D’Agata follows subjects through entire chapters. This makes for a more meditative read, one that feels less like a spaghetti junction of promising, swarming ideas than like a cool interstate system of intriguing, fruitful trails. D’Agata can imply deeper connections and make us understand his subjects better because he spends more time with them; the constituent pieces of About a Mountain feel fully explored in a way that was rarely achieved in Halls. It is a clear step forward.

The less frenetic feel to About a Mountain allows D’Agata to partake of some breathtaking rhetoric as well. A particularly effective device is one that I’ll term “the upsell,” which he employs here while talking about everything uncovered in Lake Mead once Las Vegans began to drink it dry:

For what attracted the extra million visitors to Lake Mead that year was not the usual lure of the lake’s artificial beauty, nor its recreational usefulness, not even just the novelty that such a lake could exist, but rather the simple fact that the lake was slowly dying, that as the city quickly drained it the lake’s level lowered, and there slowly reemerged from its sinking blue surface that far distant past of the city of Las Vegas: a chimney stack from a concrete plant poking higher and higher above the water every day, part of a giant complex of mixing vats and grinders that was built in the thirties to help pour Hoover Dam, then was flooded by the lake that the dam had helped form; there was the B-29 bomber that crashed into Lake Mead, left there by the Air Force in 1949 because at that time it was so deep that divers couldn’t reach it; there was the sundae shop; there was the baker’s shop; there was the grocery store; a bank; there were 233 crypts and tombstones that were stripped bare of clothing and necklaces and bones when every deceased resident of St. Thomas, Nevada was ziplocked and carted north and reburied upriver, just days before the growing lake would swallow their town whole.

Notice how D’Agata moves from the chimney-stack, to grinders and vats, to an airplane, to entire buildings, and finally to a graveyard. At each step he ratchets things up just a little bit higher, until, when you finally reach that crypt, you find yourself unsettled by vertigo of the height and by D’Agata’s insight. Notice too the energy of that entire stretch, how the prose moves so crisply from present-day Vegas and Lake Mead back into the past as the lake drops inch by inch, but then ends with the lake rising again decades earlier when the town was originally flooded. D’Agata so often shows this kind of economy, subtlety, and energy throughout About a Mountain, and there can be no doubt that he has blossomed into a remarkable stylist, the kind of exacting craftsman that any language needs. The jump from Halls to Mountain is so accomplished and intriguing that any reader interested in creative nonfiction ought to follow, closely, D’Agata’s next steps in his ongoing critique of the American frontier spirit.

III. About a Highway

With About a Mountain, an attempt to deconstruct the American West’s most dynamic city, D’Agata elaborates on an investigation into the West that he began in Halls of Fame. The centerpiece of this inquiry is the book’s eponymous essay, a discussion of movement between spaces. He begins by mythologizing the idea of the threshold as something that hides wonders behind it and explains that the hall is what delivers us from threshold to threshold.

The hall, of course, has its analog in the highways that criss-crosses the vast American West. “That is the place we are in,” D’Agata writes, “You and I and the road.” “Hall of Fame” is D’Agata’s trip from hall to hall, or rather, highway exit to highway exit. The essay is replete with the ephemera that dot the landscape of the summer road trip and chunks of highway lore, which are manifestations of the American answer to a question posed by all land west of the Mississippi; they are, as Baudrillard puts it, “the America of desert speed, of motels and mineral surfaces.” For Baudrillard, the geology of the desert hides America’s destiny; in the desert he can read “the future catastrophe of the social,” he can appreciate that “the inhumanity of our ulterior, asocial, superficial world immediately finds its aesthetic form here.” D’Agata shows what kinds of things people have done with such a portentous land.

“Hall of Fame” is an essay that explores what is in this land-mass, this embodiment of the angst of modernity, and how we have attempted to process and humanize this barren land that resists commodification. The system of highways that Baudrillard used to explore the West becomes the most important piece of D’Agata’s answer, the organizing logic around which everything else is situated. In the midst of his traveling, he declares, “I want to come to a full-stop place eventually.” But this he cannot do, because the ethic of the American West, its infinity of space, goads the human mind to fill it with something — anything — and permits no stopping. It is a source of continual regeneration of the American identity.

This essay is the nucleus that radiates out to connect the six remaining pieces in Halls of Fame, each an exploration of frontiers in its own right. Taken together, they are a prolonged look at various ways in which Americans have processed empty space, be it cognitive, artistic, or geographical, and each reveals a stop on the American highway that gives us a cracked-mirror look back at the nation we inhabit. D’Agata finds the submerged preoccupations of a nation in the marks it has left on this terrain: atomic bombs, alien bodies, cults, sublime geography, the Pyramids, the Eiffel Tower, the most powerful light in the world, never-before-seen dances, a 15,000-page, single-spaced manuscript commonly cited as the longest book in the world, civilizations, life, death, boredom, desperation, love, death. 

There can be no question that Las Vegas is the crown jewel of all this, and no surprise that D’Agata turned his attention to the city in his next book. As one reads Halls of Fame, the supremely strange and supremely disquieting Vegas is never far from the mind, and the collection’s closing essay, “And There Was Evening and There Was Morning,” finds the author dissecting Vegas through the fundamental dichotomies of light and dark, day and night, asleep and awake. About a Mountain is like a book-length continuation of this essay, D’Agata’s return to give another — deeper, more soulful — look at this city that intrigues him. He certainly rises to the great challenge presented by Las Vegas, but perhaps he cheats a little too much in attempting to corral this raging bronco of a city.

IV. Rhetoric Unbound

Exactly where does fine rhetoric slide into manipulation? The strength of D’Agata’s essays in Halls of Fame was their collage-like use of appropriated texts: because of their inherent diffusion, one rarely felt that the author was building toward an argument. Rather, the opposite: these essays had so many implications that their weakness was not one of over-determination but under-determination.

About a Mountain suffers from no such lack; here, D’Agata’s prose is focused like a laser. The implication is difficult to miss when, for example, D’Agata draws us through this chain of facts: respected journalist Jim McManus authors a book that accuses Las Vegas mayor Oscar Goodman of ordering a hit on a judge; Goodman sues McManus; the Las Vegas Review-Journal jumps to Goodman’s defense with a suspect line of argumentation; McManus’s publisher issues a full-page apology in the New York Times Book Review; Nevada state senator representing Vegas, Dina Titus, is quoted as saying “if it’s a touch of reality that isn’t pretty, then we want to get rid of it”; Mike Figgis was not permitted to film his Oscar-winning movie Leaving Las Vegas — about a man who goes to Vegas to drink himself to death — within the city’s limits; the excessive rate of suicide in Vegas is something the city strains to hide.

In this truncated version D’Agata’s point is fairly clear — Las Vegas knows how to deal with any reality not to its liking. Reading it in its full glory in About a Mountain, one comes away feeling that Vegas has just been railroaded by an expert prosecutor. It may very well be that Las Vegas has a serious, festering problem about facing up to its own dirty laundry — that’s certainly the feeling one gets after reading D’Agata’s four-page romp — but what have we really learned? Correlation, after all, is not causation, and what we have just read is four pages of correlation. The items D’Agata documents here occurred across nearly 20 years of time, and I imagine that within that time span a similarly damning collection of facts could be gathered for any number of major American cities.

One of the major faults with About a Mountain — indeed with the kind of writing that D’Agata has engaged in throughout his career — is that it relies too heavily on this kind of “proof.” That’s not to say that D’Agata’s perceptions of the world are invalid; nor is it to say that he always relies on this kind of sophistry to get his point across. There are long stretches in both of his books where his claims are valid and proportionate to the research. At other points though — for instance, in the “scream” chapter — D’Agata’s quasi-fictive inhabiting of consciousness presents a kind of cultural criticism through magical reasoning. At these points, it’s clear that his interpretation is just one of many.

There is no reason to complain insofar as About a Mountain is an investigation into why a seemingly happy teenager would lead himself to a horrible death; nor insofar as it evokes the existential disaster that must exist when a nation tries to fill a mountain sitting next to a major, exploding metropolitan area with nuclear waste. The problem, as I see it, comes when D’Agata begins to direct specific charges at Las Vegas without doing the necessary background work to make those charges stick. 

It is dishonest to lead readers through a few pages-worth of cherry-picked facts and leave them with the impression that something has been proven. D’Agata, for example, adjusted the dates of the Yucca Mountain vote and Presley’s suicide, asserting that they happened on the same day when they were really three days apart. No matter that D’Agata acknowledges this in the back matter: you cannot argue about the world when you are manipulating the facts. A novelist could be justified in conflating two events, arguing that they were attempting a metaphorical evocation of truth, but an essayist driving an argument based on fact has no such luxury.

The fact is that very few writers could make reasoning that is so clearly contrived sound so ironclad, so beyond reproach. John D’Agata is one of these. His ability to arrange information is awesome, but About a Mountain can at times feel like a Michael Moore film: it all slides by so quickly and so smoothly, the manipulation of images and information admits no escape, the conclusion is clear, you cannot resist it; and then, half an hour after the movie, you feel as if you’ve been had. Where would we be if all the investigative journalists, economists, demographers, and other assorted painstaking cullers of data decided to prove by inference rather than by rigorous evidence? It is unfortunate to see the very same Las Vegas Review-Journal on which D’Agata casts aspersions in his book pointing out the obvious errors in his research:

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.

Innovative essay-writing that D’Agata has so ably demonstrated thus far in his career is vital, but his method also exposes an important flaw in the kind of “lyric” essay that writers like he and David Shields promote. The lyric essay is a powerful form, but D’Agata’s work too often shows that it can lead to a perfunctory, skin-deep composition. About a Mountain is a fascinating progression for D’Agata to follow his first book of essays. He could have veered further into the realm of lyricism and obscurity, producing ever more experimental prose-poem essays. Perhaps that would have left him languishing within an insular crowd of select readers, or transmuting the form into something both revelatory and open to all. Instead, he has taken a step toward honing his writing, crafting prose more clear and conventional, but still extremely innovative in its way. As a piece of writing, About a Mountain is an amazing achievement, and, as a look into the psychological depths of a city, a nation, and a lost young man, it is a remarkable success — but it also at times bears the unfortunate scent of shallowness, that of the man confronting a well-run study with his anecdotal evidence. John D’Agata’s insights count for a lot, he has earned that distinction, but his next book will be more resonant, and a stronger statement, if he can provide the reasons to believe his ably-drawn conclusions.


Scott Esposito edits The Quarterly Conversation, a magazine of literary criticism and essays. He also writes regularly on literary fiction for a wide range of publications.

in this article

About a Mountain
by John D'Agata
Hardcover, $23.95
Norton, 2010

Halls of Fame
by John D'Agata
Softcover, $15.00
Greywolf, 2001