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My Best Reading Experiences of 2014

By Geoff Schumacher

My 2014 reading veered off in some unusual directions. In part, this was because of my new job at the Mob Museum, which requires me to dedicate a portion of my reading to organized crime history. I also made a decision to cut back substantially on modern fiction.

I’ve abandoned the practice of reading a newly released novel based on a positive review or two. More often than not, the book ends up being disappointing or at least not as worthy of my time as the hundreds of classic novels I could have read instead. I’ve made exceptions to this rule for a few authors whose work I already know I like.

Here are some of my best reading experiences of 2014:

Brown Dog: Novellas

Jim Harrison, 2014

Jim Harrison is probably my favorite living fiction writer. This book collects Harrison’s novellas about a character named Brown Dog, perhaps his greatest creation in a long and productive writing career. Brown Dog is difficult to explain. He’s a man without much formal education who does odd jobs, mostly in Upper Michigan, to make just enough money to survive. He enjoys good food, lusty women, fishing and being outdoors generally, and because of his fundamental naiveté and trusting nature, he gets himself into some strange, difficult and often hilarious situations. He is very slow to anger, and sometimes slow to comprehend what people around him are really up to. He’s not street smart, but that’s not to say he isn’t wise. He was raised by and around Native Americans in the U.P., but it’s never clear whether he is, in fact, an Indian himself. Maybe half. The novellas are a joy to read, and sprinkled with just enough Truth to make them nourishing as well as a lot of fun.

One Summer: America, 1927

Bill Bryson, 2013

This is a fine work of popular history, capturing a fascinating summer with just the right style. Charles Lindbergh, Babe Ruth, Al Capone, Sacco and Vanzetti, Gutzon Borglum (Mount Rushmore), Philo Farnsworth (TV inventor), Herbert Hoover, Al Jolson, Jack Dempsey and many lesser-known characters and stories are detailed as Bryson relives what has to be one of the most interesting years in American history.

Blood Aces: The Wild Ride of Benny Binion, the Texas Gangster Who Created Vegas Poker

Doug J. Swanson, 2014

This is the book of the year as far as historical work dealing with Las Vegas. Swanson, a Dallas journalist and novelist, has written the most definitive Binion biography to date, and it’s loaded with warts-and-all detail. Swanson does a masterful job of capturing Binion’s persona, both through in-depth research and a novelist’s eye for the telling detail.

The Green Felt Jungle

Ed Reid and Ovid Demaris, 1963

Over the years, I had dipped into this classic book many times, picking out facts and details for use in my own research. But I finally read it cover to cover, and I enjoyed the experience. Somewhat like the Bill Bryson book described above, this offers a snapshot of a gleaming era in Las Vegas, when the mob ran the casino industry and law enforcement was still trying to figure out how to go to battle. As with many of the muckraking books of that time, The Green Felt Jungle has a charmingly naive moral streak that not only abhors the mob’s skimming of the casinos but asks whether gambling should be legal in the first place.

Special Deluxe: A Memoir of Life and Cars

Neil Young, 2014

I’m a longtime fan of Neil Young’s music, but he’s a very good writer as well. His first memoir, Waging Heavy Peace, was a good read, though wildly disorganized and repetitive. It badly needed the aid of a good editor. Special Deluxe is more organized and better edited, but it retains Young’s shaggy dog personality as he tells stories inspired by various cars in his extensive collection of clunkers.


Kurt Vonnegut, 2014

The great novelist Kurt Vonnegut wrote some interesting letters. They tended to be fairly short and to the point, but they could be very effective and funny.

Forty-one False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers

Janet Malcolm, 2013

Janet Malcolm is one of the all-time greats in the long-form journalism/essay world, and this collection certifies that standing. She is a tremendous observer and interviewer. If I could offer one word to describe her writing, it would be precise.

Loitering: New & Collected Essays

Charles D’Ambrosio, 2014

This was the second-hottest essay collection of the year behind Leslie Jamison’s wonderful The Empathy Exams. D’Ambrosio is a fine writer and observer of modern life. I most highly recommend his introduction and his piece on the Mary Kay Letourneau sexual assault case, which speaks volumes about the anti-intellectual, reactionary nature of political and social commentary that passes for expert analysis on TV.

My Struggle, Book 1

Karl Ove Knausgaard

English translation, 2012

I can’t explain why I read this book. After all, why should I care about the inner thoughts and mundane life of a Norwegian writer? But this autobiographical novel (more nonfiction than fiction, if there’s any of the latter at all) is nothing less than mesmerizing. Knausgaard is a fine writer, and a very insightful student and critic of himself and people close to him. I’ve already purchased Book 2, with the intention of reading all six books once they are all translated and published.

Bleak House

Charles Dickens, 1853

I’ve read 366 of the 881 pages of this classic Dickens novel. I’m enjoying it, but over the course of the year I got distracted by other books and put it down several times. I likely will finish it in 2015, and without complaint. I can’t really add anything to what so many others have said about Dickens, but let’s just say that his work holds up while so many of his contemporaries do not.

This Living Hand and Other Essays

Edmund Morris, 2012

Edmund Morris is highly regarded for his three-volume biography of Theodore Roosevelt, and not so highly regarded for his biography of Ronald Reagan, which includes re-imagined scenes and conversations. I don’t recommend everything in this eclectic collection of articles, lectures and essays, but there are some very eloquent and effective pieces, including a recounting of Morris’ passionate campaign to save a tree in Washington, D.C. Morris also writes well about classical music.

“The Secret File on Virginia Hill,” True Crime magazine article

Ray Brennan, 1951

Reading old magazines is often entertaining and informative, and this is a great example. Ray Brennan was, according to his bio in the magazine, a “Chicago newspaper crime specialist who spent a full year with the Kefauver Crime Committee.”

And, delightfully, Brennan was a good writer. When you think about True Crime magazine, you probably expect sloppy writing and wild, unsubstantiated stories. That’s not the case with this piece.

Virginia Hill, you’ll recall, was Bugsy Siegel’s girlfriend before he was killed in 1947. Over the years, she was the girlfriend of some other mob guys as well. Brennan’s descriptions of her are worth quoting:

  • “Correct usage of grammar always was a mystery to her, although she was smart enough in arithmetic. She learned quickly to count money accurately and figure her percentages in later life. She had a gift for accumulating cash, too, although she couldn’t hold on to it.”
  • “New York was Virginia’s omelet, and she enjoyed every morsel of it. There were bigger chumps in Gotham than Chicago, she discovered, and more of them. The dress shops offered better selections and the pawn shops gave better prices for jewelry that came to her as gifts but wasn’t select enough for her collection.”

The scene Brennan describes at Siegel’s Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas is memorable:

“Bugsy wasn’t happy. Virginia had joined him at the Flamingo and she was raising hob, day and night. She was allergic to cactus and suffered from hay fever. Siegel fretted constantly about money, and she couldn’t see the stuff was that important. One night in the casino she shouted to him so loudly that the customers heard: ‘Hey, Ben, let’s get the hell out of this dump and go to L.A.’ Another evening, she had an argument with a lady guest in the lobby and knocked her cold with a right to the jaw. Siegel told her she’d have to stop drinking, and she scratched his face.”

Introduction, Best American Essays 2014

John Jeremiah Sullivan, 2014

Some people skip introductions, but I’m a fan of them. They are typically where a writer comments on his or someone else’s writing, and for me that’s good reading. There’s a fine introduction in this year’s Best American Essays. Sullivan takes an investigative, scholarly approach to the history of the essay, and in the process advances the narrow but persistent dialogue about what exactly an essay is and what it is trying to accomplish. Oh, and there are some really great essays in the book, too.

Introduction, American Sketches

Walter Isaacson, 2009

Here’s a great example of an introduction in which the writer surveys his career and makes an interesting case for this collection of his writing. Isaacson was the managing editor of Time magazine and CEO of CNN, but he’s best known for his more recent work as a biographer of Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs. He has a lot of great anecdotes to share and lessons learned to reveal.

More Curious

Sean Wilsey, 2014

Wilsey’s essay collection is full of intriguing narratives, with perhaps the best stuff about Marfa, Texas, a remote small town turned artist colony where Wilsey now lives some of the time. Perhaps not surprisingly, in his excellent introduction, Wilsey talks about his favorite introductions by other writers (Thomas Pynchon and Joseph Mitchell).

Honorable mentions: The Third Coast: When Chicago Built the American Dream, Thomas Dyja; The Free, Willy Vlautin; The Empathy Exams, Leslie Jamison; Doctor Sleep, Stephen King; Do Not Sell At Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78 RPM Records, Amanda Petrusich: A Sense of Direction: Pilgrimage for the Restless and the Hopeful, Gideon Lewis-Kraus; Let Me Be Frank with You, Richard Ford; Kill the Messenger: How the CIA’s Crack-Cocaine Controversy Destroyed Journalist Gary Webb, Nick Schou.

Geoff Schumacher is the director of content for the Mob Museum in Las Vegas. He is the author of Sun, Sin & Suburbia: The History of Modern Las Vegas and Howard Hughes: Power, Paranoia & Palace Intrigue, and editor of Nevada: 150 Years in the Silver State.


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The youth and young manhood of a writer: An interview with Vu Tran

Vu Tran

By Geoff Schumacher

AMES, Iowa — In the summer of 2010, in a coffee shop across the street from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas campus, I interviewed the writer Vu Tran. The interview was prompted by the news that Tran had been hired to teach creative writing at the University of Chicago. Tran was an adjunct faculty member at UNLV at the time, and a hot literary prospect. He recently had won a coveted Whiting Writers’ Award, and a New York publishing house had committed to publish his unfinished novel. Although it was unlikely Las Vegas was going to keep Tran much longer, it was nonetheless a disheartening blow to the city’s burgeoning literary community.

Unfortunately, other commitments prevented me from transcribing the interview immediately. But more than nine months later, after I moved fifteen hundred miles from Las Vegas and started a new job, I found time to do so. I also contacted Tran to find out how things are going in Chicago. He revealed that it’s been a difficult transition for him, from the sunny, laid-back lifestyle of Las Vegas to a dramatically different place he summarized as “no parking, traffic, cramped spaces, the weather this year: the third worst blizzard on record, for fuck’s sake.”

“I miss Vegas tremendously,” Tran wrote. “Never thought I would miss it this much.”

Of course, any transition of this kind is going to be tough, as I’m discovering myself. On the positive side, Tran said he’s enjoying the academic life. “I love my classes here, and I love my students,” he said. “They’re all very talented and smart: Some are just fucking brilliant.”

Because he’s been so busy with “classwork and departmental duties,” Tran said he hasn’t done much work on his novel. But he plans to dive back into it this summer.

Tran, who is thirty-five, was born in Vietnam but moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma, when he was five years old. His father had escaped from Vietnam in 1975, settling in Tulsa, and his family emigrated five years later.

Here are the best parts of the interview.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

I remember very specifically that in first grade we had to write stories, and I wrote a story. All I remember about it is that it had one of those main-character-wakes-up-from-a-dream endings, one of those awful endings. But I remember reading it in front of the class and just enjoying that process, not only the performative process but writing something with the anticipation that someone will enjoy it. I was hooked from there on. I never really wanted to do anything else.

How did your family respond to that?

I come from a very pragmatic family and pragmatic culture. You do what you need to do to survive, you plan for the future, and stuff like that. My dad would have much preferred if I had gone into some sort of business. He’s a businessman. But there’s also this very significant respect in the Vietnamese culture for the writing profession, for artistic endeavor. You are very esteemed as a writer or an artist or what have you. Still, my dad would say, “Take some accounting classes in college just in case.” I did end up taking two accounting classes because of him — yeah, just in case. When I started winning some contests and getting some notice, they warmed up to the idea that this is all I wanted to do. And I think they became more comfortable when I was pursuing my Ph.D., because I would become a professor, which is a stable kind of profession and also a very respected profession.

What were some of the formative books for you?

To Kill a Mockingbird was a very formative book. The first serious literary novel I read was Jane Eyre, which I didn’t like. That was in seventh grade. In eighth grade I read To Kill a Mockingbird and the kind of narrative conventions that she uses, you know, the mysterious house in the neighborhood, those kinds of things interested me more than I thought. Just the child narrator, the retrospective narrator looking back on formative years, that really influenced me a lot.

The Narnia Chronicles were very, very influential. There was about a four-year span where almost all the stories I wrote were about characters going into alternate worlds. I think to a degree I still do that on a less fantastic level. I still kind of write that narrative.

When I got to college, I had a professor who became my mentor. His name was James Watson, and he was a Faulkner scholar from the University of Tulsa. He actually died this year, which was very sad for me. He made me appreciate Faulkner on various levels. But I think what he taught me the most was not just about Faulkner’s work, but about the whole idea of being a writer. Faulkner had the idea that, for example, he called The Sound and the Fury a “splendid failure.” The idea that you always try to pursue some idea of perfection, knowing full well you’ll never reach it. But it’s that pursuit that will make you a great writer. I think I learned a lot about ambition through Faulkner and through Dr. Watson. The idea, too, that you don’t walk into a room with a feather, you walk into a room with a brick. Not that you should be an asshole or a jerk, but that you should have that level of confidence in yourself, because that will translate in your writing. Whether you’re a shy person or a gregarious extrovert, that level of confidence, I believe, is very necessary if you want to be a good writer or a great writer, because people will feel that through your writing. I don’t read a lot of modernist writing anymore, but Faulkner was the guy who really made me think in that way.

Is there a particular Faulkner novel or story that’s your favorite?

My favorite of his novels would probably be Light in August and The Hamlet.

What do you like about Faulkner’s writing?

The thing about his writing is that, even at his most experimental, you always felt the beating heart there. In his Nobel speech, he said his aim was to write about the heart in conflict with itself. You really felt that through his writing. You knew you were reading something difficult and new and adventurous, but you also felt the beating heart behind that. That combination has always been very interesting to me. One without the other is not half as interesting.

Did you have a particular period when you wanted to write something that you wouldn’t do now?

In fifth grade, my first story collection was a sequel to a book called Mr. Pudgins, which was a male version of Mary Poppins. He’d go on these fantastic adventures with these kids he was taking care of. I wrote a sequel to that. Also, for a long time in my youth I wrote fairy tales. I think a lot of people do that. When I was in my teenage years, I wrote a lot of stories with fantastic elements, never really quite fantasy like The Lord of the Rings or science fiction but always some sort of realistic world with fantastic elements. When I got to college, I started writing in a much more realistic vein. And it often had an element of tragedy to it, because I think I was reading Faulkner too much. (Laughs.) A lot of kind of noirish violence. In a lot of ways, I’m returning to that now. In early college, I wrote a lot of stories with violent elements, very dark.

It wasn’t till my last year as an undergraduate that I started writing about Vietnam. I returned to Vietnam in 1996 for the first time since I actually escaped, and after that I wrote only stories concerned with Vietnam. That’s where it became less noirish and more of a naturalistic vein. More concerned with the real and historical world.

You got your undergraduate degree and your master’s at the University of Tulsa. Who were some of your contemporary influences during that time?

Tim O’Brien was a huge influence. I met him about three years ago and that was great to meet him and actually like him. Toni Morrison. For a long time I really liked Toni Morrison. She was probably my favorite writer for a long time. I started reading John Fowles, who is one of my favorite writers. It’s a shame that people forget him, because he was huge in the sixties. He was beloved by both fans and critics. He’s a very, very adventurous writer. Again, the same combination of innovation but also wonderful storytelling and human emotion. He was a huge influence on me. The African-American writers, for a long time I really, really loved them, because they had to write in a new mode to express their ideas of their American dilemma. By default, they were more adventurous writers.

Was there a connection with them for you?

For a couple of years, I would write stories with Vietnamese characters but the dilemma was obviously an African-American one, there was a racial element to it. I think I was conflating my own kind of outsider status with theirs. And of course they are very different identities and very different dilemmas. But I at least felt the superficial affinity.

So, then you went to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

The two years in the program were the best two years of my life thus far. It was so exciting. First of all, I had lived in Tulsa all of my life, not really been around writers, and suddenly I’m in this community of very ambitious, very intelligent young writers, and I found a lot of great friends. A lot of people talk about how competitive Iowa is. It’s absolutely competitive, but I like that. It was just this very energetic period in my life where I was reading everything. I was very unfamiliar with contemporary fiction, so I started reading all these writers I was not familiar with at all. I learned so many things, not just in the program but outside of it, through my relationships with the other students. To finally be able to be in a situation where all I’m doing is reading and writing was what I’d wanted my entire life, just a chance to do what I love to do without any other distraction. It was just ideal. It was like a two-year summer camp.

Who were some of your teachers there?

Ethan Canin, Samantha Chang, Chris Offutt, Marilynn Robinson, and Frank Conroy. I guess I was in his third-to-last class.

Marilynn was the writer I admired the most but she was the one I learned the least from. Not that she was a bad teacher but I just didn’t learn much from her. Ethan Canin I learned a lot of practical things from. He was very supportive of me. I’ll always remember him for his support.

What kind of practical things?

Practical things like exploit your weaknesses. When you can learn to identify the flaws in your writing, one way of fixing them is to exploit them. If you have a character who’s a cliché, exploit the fact that he’s a cliché character, make a comment on it or turn the tables on the reader so he becomes the opposite of what he began as. Stuff like that.

I learned a lot about teaching from Chris Offutt. He was a good teacher, a good communicator. He talked to students as someone they could relate with. Frank Conroy, he gave me one good workshop and another workshop where he tore me a new asshole, where he just demolished me. And I learned a lot from that, because I was an over-writer. I was still trying to be Faulkner, you know. Very verbose, not enough control. And he taught me how to really write good prose.

After that episode with Conroy was over, did he have any comments, like, you’ve made a lot of progress or . . . ?

No, Frank was in many ways very standoffish. There were very few students he loved. He would be more nurturing with them. With me, I sometimes thought he didn’t even know my name. But he did and he remembered everything. He would surprise you.

People complained about him. Everyone was terrified of him. I didn’t take his workshop until my second year, because I was afraid. Everyone was afraid. And a lot of people still resent him for how brutal he was. But that brutality was necessary. If you want to be a great writer, you have to be able to take that kind of criticism. I think a lot of times when people talk about MFA programs, they bag on them because they think they can ruin young writers. That’s complete horseshit. Those writers who get ruined deserve to get ruined, I think. Because if you can’t handle that kind of pressure, you should not be writing. If you are going to let a writing program ruin you, then maybe you should find something else to do, because yeah, it’s personal, it’s very emotional. All writers are sensitive and you take everything personally, even if it’s not intended to be personal, but you need to learn from that. You need to either learn to accept that criticism or to reject it, not to be hurt or buried by it.

You also have to deal with the criticism of the other students in the class, right?

You can learn more from the big fat idiot in the class than from the guy who supports you, because the person whose criticism is stupid, you end up learning what you don’t want in your writing. And that’s just as important as learning what you do want. People forget that. The benefit of bad criticism is really good. You just have to know how to absorb it. Bad criticism is just as helpful as good criticism. Frank believed that. He was brutally honest because he cared a lot. He didn’t want you to waste your time.

One criticism of MFA programs that I hear is they kind of steer all these writers into the same kind of writing. What do you think about that?

There is such thing as a “workshop story.” But if you think about it, at any time in literary history, you have groups of people who start writing like each other. And the great ones always rise to the top. It depends on who you are talking about. Are you talking about great writers or are you talking about mediocre writers? If you are talking about great writers, you have nothing to worry about, because those men and women will always distinguish themselves. They will not write like everyone else. And a writing program is not going to change that. I think people overestimate the power of an MFA program. What it does is it teaches people how to write in a standard, clear, strong way. And yeah, that does all seem the same, but if you look at any era in history, most of the writing is the same. And that is the writing that is forgotten. The writers who rise to the top will always be a little different.

Who were some of your writing colleagues at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop?

Curtis Sittenfeld, who wrote Prep. Reza Aslan, who’s the go-to guy for Middle Eastern issues. He’s on CNN a lot. Danielle Trussoni, who broke out with a book called Angelology. I overlapped with Anthony Swofford, who wrote Jarhead. They weren’t my closest friends, but Reza and I partied a lot. My closest friends are not as well known.

How did you end up at UNLV?

My third year in Iowa I was selling suits at Dillard’s, and I decided I needed to go back to school. I applied for USC’s Ph.D. program and UNLV’s Schaeffer Ph.D. program, and I ended up coming here because it was less expensive to live here, and they gave me a really generous three-year fellowship. And also, they seemed willing to let us do what we wanted and needed to do. It was a young program, which was exciting, and it was Las Vegas, so I came here for that, and it turned out to be the best decision, because Doug [Unger] and Richard [Wiley] and everyone else there, they are very supportive, incredibly supportive. Hands on when you need hands-on help, but for the most part they leave you alone and let you develop as you should develop, and that’s the best way to do it.

You came here more or less fresh from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which many say is the best writing program in the country. Did you feel like, “I’m the big guy on campus”? If so, how did that evolve?

I’ve always had a big ego, but I think most people coming from the workshop feel a little inflated sense of self. But I don’t think it was ever over-inflated. I think I would have had that sense of self even I hadn’t gone to Iowa. The thing is, I think I’ve always kept myself in check, because I expect a lot out of myself, so whatever environment I’m in, you find yourself comparing yourself to the people around you, but ultimately my standard are the writers I really love, my favorite writers, whether they are dead or alive. That standard never goes away. And that’s very humbling. I ended up confronting a lot of rejection here in Las Vegas, and really four or five years of not getting a book published, not getting a story collection published, and feeling very in doubt of my own talent. It was the toughest part of my life, in the sense that I was finally confronted with the idea that I might not be as talented as I think I am.

What was going on, do you think?

Number one, I think there was a downturn in the economy that had a little bit to do with that. But also, story collections were not being bought at the pace that they used to be. Publishers were much more wary of story collections and less willing to take a risk. The publishing industry has changed a lot over the last few decades but especially in the last ten years or so. Especially now, with e-books and everything. But even before that became popular, publishers were very risk-averse. Editors don’t buy books anymore, publishers buy books by committee. There’s only a handful of editors who can actually buy a book without asking anybody anymore.

It could very well be that my stories were not strong enough. I thought they were. I hope to still publish them. My Vietnam stories were not directly about the Vietnam War, so there wasn’t that marketing thread to kind of connect them. That was really tough to take for a good four years.

In the meantime, you were teaching, getting stories published, and getting your Ph.D.

I won a few contests, I was still kind of establishing my publishing credentials, but the book contract was still missing, and that was kind of hard to take. But I was writing, trying to work on the novel and teaching.

What was the turning point?

I got into the Best American Mystery Stories. It kind of started from there. Because my first novel was not working out.

What was the first novel about?

The first novel was kind of a very cliché ethnic novel. He was an American character who goes back to Vietnam to find a missing person. His father used to be in the war. There’s a secret back story that he’s going to uncover when he goes back to Vietnam. It’s kind of amazing how you suddenly realize you are writing the most cliché novel in the world. When I realized that, I said okay, unless I can fix this, I need to scrap it.

How did you get the book contract?

Around that time, my agent got back in touch with me. I’d been working with Alane Mason from WW Norton the whole time. My agent went out with my story collection in 2006. Alane was interested from the very beginning, but she couldn’t get her colleagues to agree. She was always in the back picture while we were looking at other houses. Up to the very end she was still interested. And so when my agent got back in touch with me, I told her I had this new novel that I was working on. She sent it over to that editor, Elaine, and Elaine was able to buy it this time. I currently have a contract for the novel with Norton, with kind of an implicit agreement that if the novel works out, the short stories will follow.

When you won the Whiting Award, what happened?

After I got the Whiting, I had more people pay attention to me. You look better on paper. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not. I’d rather just look better because my writing is better.

I’ve heard it said that the Whiting Award is the kiss of death for a young writer, kind of like the curse for appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

I really hope not! The Whiting is a somewhat good indicator of talent. But it’s not the perfect indicator of talent. But what’s funny is that people suddenly think you’re a good writer just because you won that without having read your work. I’m not always comfortable with that. But that’s how things work, and I understand that. It’s opened a lot of doors for me, not just in terms of writing but in terms of getting a job. I think that was crucial in me getting interviews.

How has your time in Las Vegas influenced your writing?

When you’re young, the world is all possibilities, and you have a perspective that anything is possible and ambition is endless. Once you reach a certain age or a certain point in your so-called career, you are confronted with failure. When I was young I thought, okay, I’m not as talented as I want to be, but I can get there. I still have all this time to be this genius or whatever. And then you realize, at least I did in the last five or six years, that I might not have the kind of talent that I want. But what you end up doing is folding those expectations into real life. You don’t discard your ambitions, you don’t necessarily compromise, but you fold them into the life you are given. Most importantly, what I’ve learned is to accept my abilities and my limitations but to also leave myself plenty of room to surprise myself. So, I think I leave Las Vegas being more aware of the limitations and knowing what it means to feel like you’re failing.

“Anything is possible.” That’s sort of a mantra for Las Vegas, isn’t it? It’s like every time you step up to the roulette wheel, it’s going to land on your color.

This city is always making itself over. It’s always renewing itself. It’s a place of endless optimism. I think the problem sometimes is it can be blind optimism. Life is not fair. The literary world is not fair. I tried so hard to understand and read the market. I don’t understand the market any better than I used to. Just try to do what you think is good. Try to write what you like to read. And then you don’t make bad decisions. That’s the best you can do sometimes. Because a lot of it is luck, and a lot of it has nothing to do with who deserves what.

That’s the type of wisdom you pick up here.

I still have to figure out how Vegas figures into this. I don’t think I’ll really understand until I have two or three years separation from this city. I’ve always thought I’ll appreciate the city more after I’m gone. I think that will be the case.

I know you are going to write about Las Vegas in your novel. Will leaving make it easier to write about Las Vegas?

Oh, I hope so! My biggest fear right now is I’m going to be writing the novel in Chicago and say, oh my God, I wish I could go here or there and do research or whatever and I won’t be able to. But I also think that the distance will clarify things and put them into focus much better.

Las Vegas seems like a great town for stories. Do you find that to be true?

I think Las Vegas is a good town for stories because there’s always the promise of a good story. There’s not necessarily a good story there but there’s always the promise of a good story, because people have those expectations of a town like this. Regardless of what the actual reality is, I think your reader will always have those expectations. That’s a benefit for you. You can go in any direction and most readers will follow you, because they implicitly know this is the kind of city where you’re going to have an interesting story.

One of the best things about writing about Las Vegas is that you can exploit so many of the expectations that people have about reading a Las Vegas story. I think that’s more true of Las Vegas than any other city except perhaps New York. Because people have such an ingrained idea of what this town is like. And that’s so ripe for the writer to take advantage of and play around with.

Did you read about Las Vegas when you were here?

I’ve read a lot about Las Vegas but it was mostly related to poker, because I was obsessed with poker.

How did you get into poker?

I got into poker to distract myself from the pain of being rejected. I was not seeing the developments I wanted in writing, so I started playing poker. I’ve always liked the game but I really got into it here. I started reading not so much the poker manuals but like James McManus’ Positively Fifth Street, which is an amazing book about Las Vegas history and the Binions. I read this wonderful book by Anthony Holden. He’s an Englishman and he’s actually a Shakespeare scholar. The book is called Big Deal. He spends a year being a professional poker player. It’s great. He wrote two books on it. Really great writing. I love those books. I ended up learning a lot about Las Vegas through those books.

Have you written about poker?

I have written about poker in a short story that I wrote for an upcoming anthology, Dead Neon. Poker figures pretty heavily in that story. I wrote a little bit about poker in the chapter I wrote for you last year [the serial novel Restless City]. And there’ll be a pretty significant element of poker in my novel, because one of the main characters is a gambler, a poker player. I’m also interested in poker because it is a very Asian pastime. It’s very ingrained in Asian culture. A lot of the professional poker players are Asian, particularly Vietnamese. I’m still trying to explore why these people love playing poker so much.

Have you read any good Las Vegas fiction?

For me the best Vegas book is Positively Fifth Street. In terms of the novel, I read Fear and Loathing and I didn’t love it. This is just a theory on my part, and it’s something I’m trying to deal with in my novel, but I feel like perhaps one of the reasons there hasn’t been a universally held great Vegas novel is because writers try too hard to give people the lowdown on the real Las Vegas instead of dealing with it in a much more metaphoric way. People try too hard to give the down-and-dirty, grimy aspect of Vegas instead of actually coming up with a kind of metaphor that doesn’t quite mirror the real Las Vegas but actually ends up giving you a more real sense of what the city is like. My point is, I think if there’s going to be a great Las Vegas novel, I’d like to see it be complete fantasy. The city is just so different from other cities. You have to deal with so many clichés and stereotypes that realism might not be the way to do it.

What can you tell me about the novel you’re working on now?

I can tell you that it takes place mostly in Las Vegas. Parts of it take place in Vietnam and on a refugee island off of Malaysia. Those are more like memories that the characters have. I’m really bad at talking about stuff in progress. I don’t know what else to say about it, except that it has in some ways to do with American expectations of what a Vietnam story is. There is still this American obsession with Vietnam as an idea rather than a country, a historical and cultural legacy rather than an actual country. With that, Vietnamese people take on this sense that every Vietnamese person has to have this dramatic back story that they don’t necessarily have. I think in certain ways my novel tries to deal with that.

You’re going to the University of Chicago. What kind of teacher are you going to be? Are you going to be like Frank Conroy, or like someone else?

My strategy overall with teaching creative writing is to be kind and nice in a way where I can be brutally honest. I usually have a very good relationship with my students, and I try to have a kind of laid-back, casual, and very funny rapport with them. So that when I can be brutally honest, the impact is not as personal, it’s not as significant. I want to be Frank Conroy, but I’m not. I’m not mean like that. You can only teach your personality. My personality is that I’m a really nice guy who likes to be brutally honest. That’s worked for me so far. That’s the kind of balance I want. To be able to be mean when I need to be, but it’s always absorbed because they know I’m not an asshole. Most of the time they won’t listen unless they trust you. You can be one hundred percent correct, you can be brilliant in your criticism, but if they don’t trust you, if they don’t like you, they won’t listen to you, so what’s the use of giving that kind of criticism. Most of all, I want to have fun in my class. But to have fun, honest conversations.

My thing is I curse a lot in class. But I always curse in the context of humor. I never curse when I’m angry. I never curse in a context where it would be taken that seriously. And I think that kind of straightforwardness and informality gives a sense of levity but also sometimes things are just taken too seriously. You have to have a balance.

You took classes with Dave Hickey. What did he bring to your education?

He pointed me in very interesting directions, not just having to do with literature but with cinema, with art, with nonfiction. He just threw me in a lot of very interesting directions. But also I think he just has a way of talking about art that is very uncompromising. He has his view of what a great artist is, and he doesn’t give a shit what anyone says. He always has a very unique perspective on things, which I really appreciated. It’s not always a perspective that I agree with, but at least it wasn’t the same perspective that everyone else is regurgitating. And he reads people really well. He could read a person within five minutes of meeting him.

One thing I learned from him is that when it comes to art, you should not be thinking about offending people. I’m not saying you should just go out and offend people but I feel sometimes people bring in the idea of sensitivity and apply it to art, and that has no place in art. And Hickey understands that.


Filed under Uncategorized

Dave Hickey and Las Vegas

The respected essayist and art critic Dave Hickey is leaving Las Vegas. He’s moving to Albuquerque, where his wife, the art curator Libby Lumpkin, has taken a teaching job at the University of New Mexico. Hickey will teach there too, according to news reports. Hickey’s exit from Las Vegas, a city he often professed to love and considered “home,” occasioned the following observations by Scott Dickensheets and Geoff Schumacher.

By Scott Dickensheets

Dave Hickey’s departure from Las Vegas is like a tremor in the force: a distant tug on your awareness, maybe accompanied by the screams of a dying planet, but here, where you are now, its effect can be hard to pinpoint. I mean, it was cool to share a town with the author of Air Guitar: Essays on Arts & Democracy — which is permanently locked into my Top 10, no matter how many terrific books I ever read — but in the ruts and grooves most of us move in, what’ll really be different with him off to New Mexico?

I didn’t refer to the force by accident; there was a certain Obi-Wan-on-Tatooine quality to Hickey’s decade here. If he wasn’t exactly living in quiet self-exile in a desert cave and shooing away the Jawas, it was nonetheless clear that his mystical powers belonged to a larger universe — his real business was out there, among the stars. Over the years, I’d hear sotto voce complaints that Hickey never wrote about us, never turned his high beams toward the attention-hungry local scene — which was true, he didn’t, and also ridiculous, because why would he?

This was the hard pill for some Las Vegans to swallow: The art that interests Hickey is bigger, more ambitious, more international than most of what happens here, which tends to stay here, which is part of its problem. The local arts scene, as is surely the case in most cities, is a self-reinforcing network of career minor-leaguers, sincere hard workers who support each other and the scene, but who probably won’t transcend it to reach the high strata Hickey circulates in. He disdained most of the work you’d see in the arts district — I’m sure he’d say that one Ed Ruscha is worth any number of Downtown amateurs. So it was never realistic to think that Dave Hickey was going to trot dutifully to the Reed Whipple Center or Arts Factory each week to write up the scene for 23 cents a word in CityLife or the Weekly, or even one of the dailies. For a contributor to Vanity Fair, Artforum, Harper’s and Art in America, that amounts to pro bono work, and it’s not really the cosmopolitan audience he wants to reach, anyway.

And so Hickey’s impact here was more diffuse. While in UNLV’s art department, he nurtured some excellent artists, a couple of whom haven’t moved away (yet). I hope his just-ended stint in the English department results in a few more thoughtful writers in our midst. He curated a couple of great exhibits, enlivened some panel discussions, offered a lot of grabby quotes to journalists, groused about university politics and generally held court. A lot of his thing involved simply being Dave Hickey, glamorous art-world maverick, in tacky old Las Vegas. Indeed, I’m sure the people who’ll miss him most acutely — the people most loudly lamenting his departure as a deep bruise on our cultural life — are the Roger Thomases and other sophisticates who actually talked to him regularly (and as equals), rather than the rest of us, who had to wait until he published. Our engagement with Hickey won’t change.

(And by “rest of us,” of course, I mean the rest of the maybe 5 percent of Las Vegans who knew or cared who Dave Hickey is, or seriously appreciate art. The other 95 don’t give a damn.)

But that’s all cool, really. No one should bother with other people’s expectations if they don’t need to; I sure as hell wouldn’t if I didn’t have to.

Still, I like to entertain the occasional what if. What if Hickey had decided to write locally? Not art reviews, but pieces about Vegas in the vein of Air Guitar — mixes of wide-ranging critique, reportage, memoir, wit, informed speculation, cultural advocacy and inspired dot-connecting. Maybe two or three a year for local publication. Would a couple dozen such pieces over a decade have helped nudge forward the cosmopolitan spirit Hickey so badly wanted to find here? Pulled together a crowd of like minds who wanted to talk about smart things and kick up some unfashionable fun? Who knows? I’m probably as naive as the gallery owners who complained that he never touted their shows. But the man himself once noted that in a democracy you have to wrangle for your pleasures, so I kinda wish he’d have tried. Tatooine can be so drab sometimes.

By Geoff Schumacher

My complaint is not so much that Dave Hickey didn’t write for the local papers while he was here, though I agree that could have been interesting.

(I once pitched him on the idea of reviewing a Chet Baker bio that had been sent to me at the Las Vegas Mercury. He told me to go ahead and send him the book, he’d take a look at it and let me know if he was interested in writing something. I sent him the book but didn’t hear from him for a long time. I finally contacted him again. He hardly remembered the proposal, ultimately recalling that he thought it was a lightweight bio and [my words] unworthy of his comment. He probably was right about the book but still.)

No, my complaint is that since the publication of Air Guitar in 1997, Hickey hasn’t publish much at all of even a vaguely general interest. By all accounts, including my personal experience, he had and still has a lot to say; he’s said it with great witty eloquence before television cameras and radio microphones. But for whatever reasons, he hasn’t managed to get much of it into print. Some observers thought the 2001 MacArthur genius grant would give him the time and comfort to get something big done but apparently not. Besides the fact that a much-anticipated sequel to Air Guitar has been delayed for several years now, some of his work for the big magazines has been, shall we say, paltry.

The first piece that comes to mind was published in Harper’s in November 2006. In “It’s Morning in America,” Hickey followed gubernatorial candidate Dina Titus around rural Nevada to, I guess, check the political pulse of the hinterlands. While Hickey conjured a couple of nice lines for the piece, I was left wanting something more substantial than glib descriptions of Pahrump and its libertarian bent. Why, after all, did he take on this assignment while rejecting or neglecting the opportunity to tackle more interesting or important matters for such a wide, sophisticated audience? Surely Hickey could write about just about any subject for any of the big magazines, yet he either doesn’t do anything at all or he picks things decidedly off the subject.

And here’s a related question: If not writing about Las Vegas for local pubs, why not write meaningfully about Las Vegas for the big guys? That could have had a significant impact on public perceptions of Las Vegas, pro and con.

Ah, but who am I to tell somebody like Dave Hickey what to do, how to lead his life? He gets to decide that, of course, not me. If he doesn’t want to write about these things, that’s his business. But the end result of all his iconoclastic puttering is that his value and influence while he was in Las Vegas was muted. Ultimately, instead of having a lasting impact, he’s a blip, a footnote, of importance to just a handful of artists and students.

Unless, of course, Hickey still has something up his sleeve. Maybe he plans to type up something really compelling about Las Vegas and needs to leave town in order to have the proper perspective to do it the way he wants. That’d be cool. But it’s wishful thinking at best.


Filed under Nonfiction

A back and forth about John D’Agata’s ‘About a Mountain’

Copyright 2010, W.W. Norton & Company

By Scott Dickensheets and Geoff Schumacher

Odd book, John D’Agata’s About a Mountain. As one reviewer noted, it’s more of an extended essay than a full-fledged book — heavy on the jumping around and idiosyncratic juxtaposing allowable in the former, with less of the shape and design you expect in the latter. Ostensibly it’s about Yucca Mountain, the now-all-but-dead nuclear waste repository proposed for a site 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas. Except that it makes no attempt to be a well-rounded history or journalistic exploration of the project. Rather, it’s a highly selective sampling of Yucca-related issues: some of the politics that led to the site’s selection; some of the dangers associated with it; the folly of thinking we could devise signs that would warn people away for the 10,000-year life of the project.

But to that subject, D’Agata appends numerous other topics — Las Vegas, where his mother now lives; some of the sad and silly aspects of the city’s 2005 centennial celebration; the suicide of a young man (who jumped off the Stratosphere Tower) whom D’Agata was at first convinced he’d spoken to on the night he died.

So, plenty of oddity already. But then, in the style of the “lyric essay,” of which D’Agata is considered a foremost practitioner, he took a few factual liberties. Tinkered with the timeline; conflated events. D’Agata, in interviews, describes it as applying imagination to the essay in order to deliver not the factual payload of journalism but the emotional and intellectual satisfactions of literature. This is where our exchange begins.

SCOTT: Let me limp into this thing with a disclaimer: Nothing nice I say about this book is meant as a defense of its outright factual sloppiness. That business about I-80 running through Vegas, or the major Strip hotels being 2,000 feet from the freeway interchange we call the Spaghetti Bowl — there’s no excuse for that. You and I are all same-page and shit there. Where we depart, I guess, is my nonjudgmental curiosity — see how tentative I am, protecting what’s left of my journalism cred?! — about the way D’Agata uses certain fictional techniques in his nonfiction. He’s upfront about it, if not so much (not enough, perhaps) in the book itself, at least in talking about it: “I mean, if you’d asked me whether I succeeded in writing a stellar piece of journalism, I would say absolutely not,” he told me in an interview. “I’m not a journalist, it’s not what I attempted to do. I changed things, I conflated time, I changed names, I altered some experiences slightly in order to streamline the narrative a bit. I did things, in other words, that journalists don’t do. Or shouldn’t.”

He defends that practice the way most nonfiction fabulists do, on artistic grounds: “No matter what genre you’re working in, at the end of the day it’s literature, it’s art, that you’re trying to make.” That is, the work’s cumulative emotional and intellectual impact is more important than some niggling concerns about minor factual accuracy. Some are sympathetic to that argument, and not all of them are James Frey apologists; some are David Sedaris fans. Hunter Thompson certainly embroidered reality in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and you can still find that shelved in the journalism section. Of course, Thompson’s style was comic, and so the satirical exaggerations were (sometimes) easier to parse. D’Agata is not a primarily comic writer. But does that mean this kind of license is only available to funny writers?

GEOFF: It is certainly true that there are many well-known and well-regarded works of nonfiction that have been, to use your apt word, embroidered for greater literary effect. Besides Hunter Thompson and David Sedaris, the legendary New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell comes to mind. In these cases, I believe, the writers had two main objectives. First, to make the story more entertaining by smoothing out the narrative and fixing any roadblocks that might slow down or hamper the reader’s enjoyment of the story. Thompson and Sedaris certainly had this in mind. The second objective follows more ambitiously upon the first: to make the story hit home more effectively with the reader, to essentially make it more true.

This second objective is somewhat paradoxical, right? After all, what could be more true than the truth? But the case can be made, I think, using fiction. Advocates for fiction will say that greater truths about human nature often can be revealed through good fiction than through factual reporting. The fictional story, in essence, is truer than the messiness of reality. Mitchell, I believe, would have argued that through slight alterations in his stories about New York City denizens, he was able to reveal them more fully to his readers and his message about reality became clearer.

All well and good. I suspect we’re on the same page there. The problem with About a Mountain, in my view, is that the fabrications, as I understand them, do little or nothing to make this a better book. In fact, the reason we’re talking about them at all is because they jump out from an otherwise lackluster piece of writing. I don’t know what this book is about, and I don’t know what D’Agata wanted it to be about. I don’t know what some high-profile critics saw in the book that made them write glowing reviews. He’s a talented writer, I think, someone who is trying out new ways to write essays. I get that. But I don’t get the feeling this book would have been worse if D’Agata had stuck to the facts throughout. The marketing people tasked with writing the jacket copy and press releases for this book must have been pulling their hair out trying to explain it to prospective readers: It’s about Yucca Mountain, the proposed nuclear waste repository, right? Well, yes and no. It’s about Las Vegas then? Well, sorta kinda, but not really. The book is an interesting grad school exercise, but I don’t think it could find much of an audience. What did you like about it?

SCOTT: As it happens, Sedaris is and isn’t a good comparison — as the New Republic demonstrated pretty convincingly in 2007, he made shit up. Not merely “exaggerations for comic effect”; he wrote pure fiction, which he then retailed, much more lucratively, as having actually happened. But Sedaris is an instructive comparison because his fans, and pretty much everyone but me and the New Republic, give him a free pass because it’s only humor writing, and faking it just makes for a “better story.” No harm, no foul. D’Agata’s factual liberties weren’t nearly as egregious, but no free pass for him; those liberties were part of what ruined the book for you.

What’s About a Mountain about? Not really a mountain, I think. It seems to me that it’s about Yucca Mountain in roughly the same way Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is about the district attorneys convention. Both were pretexts — Thompson’s real subject was a lament for the permissive spirit of the ’60s, already doomed by creeping Nixonism; D’Agata’s, more subtly, is about knowability. Questions about what you can actually know riddle the book. Who can truly understand a project as scientifically dense, as politically compromised, as logistically complex as Yucca Mountain? Who can know why a young kid kills himself? Was the suicide victim really the kid D’Agata talked to that night?

And so you have D’Agata structuring the book using the ancient reporter’s standard for basic understanding: the five W’s. And you have the set pieces. The exhaustive list of everything, and I mean every damn thing, down to the dirt, that would have to be destroyed in the event of a nuclear transport incident — he’s using sheer knowingness to overwhelm the reader’s ho-hum attitude toward yet another apocalyptic scenario. The long section about the project to develop signage that would warn people away from the site for 10,000 years — that’s a graphic depiction of how hard knowledge is to codify, communicate and preserve (never mind that language itself would deteriorate into gibberish over 10,000 years; they can’t even find a material that would last that long on which to inscribe the gibberish). And D’Agata’s attempts to find some connection, even metaphorical, between the larger social anxiety represented by Yucca Mountain and the very private anxieties that led that kid to jump off the Stratosphere Tower — again, trying to discern the limits of what can be known. And, frustratingly, failing in this case. “And,” he told the Las Vegas Weekly, “I think that’s when it gets, toward the end of the book, a little more manic in pulling in more and more and more subjects. And the transitions become slighter, and a little more dramatic. It’s trying to announce its inability to find that significance. … That’s what the experience of the book was like for me — learning that meaning isn’t always possible. And I think in nonfiction especially that’s pretty interesting to discover.”

That’s not a wholly satisfying explanation, nor entirely obvious. I might not have fished some of that out of the often random-seeming narrative if he hadn’t hipped me to it; that’s how over-subtly he handles it. And some elements of the book — some of the Vegas scenes, the centennial — don’t bear on that theme in any way I can figure.

In pursuit of all that, of making it a “better story,” he torqued facts that, as you say, might not’ve needed torquing. Agreed. That still bugs me.

GEOFF: Your explanation of what About a Mountain is really about is persuasive and, I believe, correct. That’s easy to say, I suppose, because the author basically confirmed it. But when I read the book — and I readily admit this is partly my failing — I didn’t glean this deeper meaning from the narrative. And if I couldn’t figure it out, I wonder how many other people couldn’t either. The book opens with D’Agata and his mother participating in a parade that was part of the Las Vegas centennial festivities. Looking back over that chapter, I can’t find any legitimate relation between that scene and the underlying theme of knowability or about Yucca Mountain. At the end of the chapter about the parade, he concludes with something about wanting “the truth of its significance to be revealed.” Nothing wrong with that. Writers try to find significance in everyday things all the time. But in the case of this silly parade, the significance is plain to see: It was a lamely conceived and executed promotional scheme for the Las Vegas centennial. Nothing more, nothing less.

Since I’ve been so mean to this writer and this book, I want to say something nice. As you have explained, D’Agata is big on lists. In his list of things that would have to be destroyed if there was a nuclear waste accident in Las Vegas, he mentions asphalt, newspaper stands, traffic posts, etc. One thing he lists really made me smile. When he’s going through a hotel, listing the things that would have to be removed, he mentions, “The antique table where the elevator stops in the hall with the white marble top. The gold-gilded mirror behind it.” I love that. Isn’t it true that hotels feel the need to place a table and a mirror in that position in the hallway next to the elevator? This is a great observation.

Finally, I must return to the main issue of the discussion: nonfiction that isn’t completely nonfiction. In Reporting at Wit’s End, the recently released collection of New Yorker articles by St. Clair McKelway, a contemporary of Joseph Mitchell, A.J. Liebling and E.B. White, it is revealed by Adam Gopnik in his introduction that McKelway may not have been 100 percent factually accurate in some of his articles.

“There are often in McKelway’s writing bits of shapely storytelling and sprightly dialogue that belie their factual surface. The truth, politely held in a vault on West Forty-third Street, is that writers of his generation worked with a general understanding that a story could be kneaded into shape as long as the kneading was done gently and with good purpose; the well-wishing tone of their work is due in part to its being gently held in hostage to the good will of the subjects. Character can only be revealed, in the shortish span even of a long magazine piece, by a certain element of caricature; the license of cartoonists to draw a black outline and exaggerate an eyebrow was the license they claimed, with the understanding that it wouldn’t be used maliciously — when, in later years by other writers, it began to be, the license was revoked.”

I would argue that in the 21st century, the world is a different place than that in which these “kneaders” operated. Readers today are offended by the notion of being deceived. In Gopnik’s words, the license has been revoked. It’s either fiction or nonfiction — anything in between is a violation of a sacred trust, yet another nail in the coffin of integrity. And as much as I’d like to give writers free rein to do their thing, I have to endorse this modern-day belief in a strict division between fiction and nonfiction. The world is too weird and hostile a place for me to have to parse such things. If it’s fiction, I understand that it’s fiction. And if it’s nonfiction, I ought to be able to trust that it’s nonfiction. That’s not to say a nonfiction writer can’t ever “knead into shape” a story to help get at the truth. For example, a memoirist who re-creates dialogue from an earlier time that wasn’t recorded or written down can, I think, be given the license to build a reasonable narrative — as long as the physical and historical facts remain intact. It’s all very slippery, but my point is I don’t think D’Agata has either lived up to this general rule or, in the tradition of McKelway and Mitchell, manipulated the facts to sufficiently good effect to justify manipulating them.

SCOTT: In one last gasp of defense, I’ll say that some of the meaning and knowability theme is readily available to readers. I picked up on a bit of it in the first two passages I mentioned — the incantatory naming of everything that must be destroyed after a nuclear incident, and the Yuccca signage project. Indeed, it’s because I asked D’Agata about it that he pointed out the rest, which admittedly I didn’t tumble to. Blame my essentially journalistic cast of mind — about much of About a Mountain you can say that instead of directly explaining its themes the way standard nonfiction would (“and now let’s examine the limits of knowledge”), this book more or less enacts that knowing and not-knowing — demonstrates it. That was a literary nicety, the kind you tease out by thinking slowly and deeply about what is and isn’t in the narrative, that escaped me until later.

Not that you’d know it from this exchange, but I tend to surveil the fact-fiction border like a Minuteman on the Arizona state line. For example, my interest in Liebling bled out almost immediately when I figured out he was juicing his pieces. Indeed, for me, that’s the exactly right analogy: It’s like using steroids. Cheating. Liebling has an asterisk now, and he lost my hall-of-fame vote.

I’ve never been entirely comfortable with that “fiction is truer than nonfiction” argument, even though it’s been said by people much smarter than I am. Intuitively, it just doesn’t feel correct to me: If a truth is so rarified that you can’t find its manifestation in real life, what good is it? And if the argument is that you can get at those truths better in fiction because you can delve into people’s minds, well, as Tom Wolfe said, he figured that what people think “was just another door you had to knock on.”

So much of what I want out of nonfiction is bound up in the rasp of the writer’s voice and sensibility as it rubs up against the real, actual world as it exists, encoding that experience into prose. To short-cut those decisions for the sake of a “better story” is to take the easy way out, and I hate that. If your story doesn’t say exactly what you want it to say, either find a story that does, or say something else.

Not to mention that, in the indiscriminate info-bath of modern life, clarity is to be treasured.

And yet I find myself defending, if somewhat uneasily, a book that clearly bends those rules. I guess it’s that I also realize we exist in a hybridizing culture, a culture of sampling and remixing and mashing-up, and I find something captivating about the vigor of all those recombinative energies. So let’s get all subliminal here: Maybe, in the end, what I’m sticking up for is less About a Mountain itself (although I did like it quite a lot) than the hope that this cross-breeding mentality can help keep nonfiction writing alive and evolving. (I think that’s what D’Agata wants, too.)

GEOFF: Of course in the end we find a degree of common ground. Such is life when it is lived properly. As journalists, we naturally bristle or at least worry more than the average person when a writer wanders away from the facts. But in the interest of confusing things further before we conclude, I want to offer something of a concession. In his new book Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, David Shields, a D’Agata fellow traveler, makes the compelling point that the blurring of reality and fiction — your mash-up, remix ethic — has become ubiquitous in 21st century culture. He cites, among other things, “VH1’s Behind the Music series” . . . “‘behind-the-scenes’ interviews running parallel to the ‘real’ action on reality television shows” . . . “DVDs of feature films that inevitably include a documentary on the ‘making of the movie'” . . . “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” . . . talk radio.” Shields is absolutely correct that the notion of reality has been forever warped by these new elements of popular culture. These creations aren’t real in any traditional sense of the word, but they still can be informative, entertaining and worth doing.

This, unfortunately, does not alter my view re: About a Mountain. I guess, for me, D’Agata chose a strange subject on which to try out his new-school essaying. His perception that there’s something unknowable about Yucca Mountain, some vague uncertainties about the safety of the project, is ultimately what bugs me the most. As someone who lives 90 miles from Yucca Mountain and who has lived through two decades of political and scientific wrangling over this project, I think there are some very knowable things about it. This is a serious matter for people in Southern Nevada, just as it should be for people across the country. We do not have a workable solution for storing high-level nuclear waste, and yet we keep making more of it. This is a disaster in the making, a very sobering business. For D’Agata to use this subject as the basis for a literary experiment just rubs me the wrong way. VH1 can produce truth-challenged Behind the Music shows for years on end and it doesn’t really mean a whole lot one way or another. But Yucca Mountain does matter.

We still need a good social history of Yucca Mountain, a thoughtful exploration that isn’t just science, isn’t just politics but a book that puts the whole messy story in perspective. When I first heard about D’Agata’s book, I vaguely hoped he had given that a shot. He did not.


Filed under Nonfiction