John D’Agata is an essayist of virtuosic talents who follows in the expansive tradition of David Foster Wallace, who called D’Agata “one of the most significant U.S. writers to emerge in the past few years. His essays combine the innovation and candor of David Shields and William Vollmann with the perception and concinnity and sheer aesthetic weight of Annie Dillard and Lewis Hyde. In nothing else recent is the compresence of sh– and light that is America so vividly felt and evoked.” Like Wallace, D’Agata’s peripatetic prose style disorients the reader with tangents, asides, and a shifting style only to reward him with the discovery of deep, unexpected connections and the revelation of the type of stubborn, essential truths that evade direct discussion.
The manuscript is a sweeping look at the interaction of politics, history, and personality in the transformation of Nevada’s Yucca Mountain into a repository for high-level nuclear waste. D’Agata darts from a Las Vegas bar to a Senate committee hearing to a vertiginous suicide to an examination of Indian treaty law. He borrows from an array of techniques-historical, journalistic, novelistic, essayistic, critical-to craft a narrative that defies a set genre. This broad approach works to convey the feverish and heartfelt nature of D’Agata’s vision and makes compelling points about the conflict between the values we preach and the values we act upon and about destructions large and small.
D’Agata has a gift for capturing the baroque bureaucratic idiosyncrasies of political “debate.” At one place in the manuscript, he quotes at length a discussion between senators Barbara Boxer and Harry Reid about whether nuclear fuel rods need to be cooled for five years or five months. After letting them self-immolate by their own trivial, rococo logic, he goes in for the kill: “…the performative nature of debate would remain, the fact that spent nuclear fuel rods in twenty-first-century American reactors required five years rather than five months to cool down would be noted by stenographers, transcribed and digitized, and bound and archived for as long as such a fact was determined to be useful.” At his best, D’Agata’s simple observations can fully puncture his subjects’ lies and half-truths.
D’Agata tends to struggle somewhat when reciting lists of facts or recapitulating a subject’s historical background. D’Agata is prone to long lists and lengthy sentences (his appositives’ qualifiers have their own clarifications) that are lacking in rhythm. This serves to weigh down the text and makes reading tedious in these sections. Likewise, the quotations he includes tend to be lengthy, disconnected and wordy. One lackluster example: “‘This,’ said the Council, ‘is what Americans are afraid of. … It is not the power we produce.'”
But these weaknesses could be easily fixed by a developmental editor, and we should jump at the opportunity to publish this manuscript. John D’Agata is an established figure in the literary world, having published a book of essays, Halls of Fame, and edited an anthology, The Next American Essay. Both books, were well received by readers and critics. Halls of Fame received more than 90 percent five-star reviews on Amazon.com and Booklist said that D’Agata “stretches and tweaks it [the essay] until it is more poetry than prose.” Plus, D’Agata is well respected by other writers and has received praise from Richard Howard, Annie Dillard, and Carole Maso.
This book should sell well in literary circles and should also sell well in the Southwest, specifically Nevada, where the book is set. John D’Agata is a young, attractive author, and he should be able to present himself well at book readings, at book singings, and in interviews.
In terms of marketability, I have one suggestion: Talk to D’Agata about changing the name of the book. The name “About a Mountain” is very staid and languorous and does not reflect the impassioned nature of the writing. I would suggest something more upbeat such as “Toxic Mountain” or something provocative such as “Mountain of Lies.” But regardless of whether D’Agata agrees to change the title, I think this is a high quality book that can find a sizable readership.