I think that any show of love for the essay is a cause for celebration. We aren't quite yet over the hump in this country in acknowledging that nonfiction is in fact a legitimate, literary, and artful form of writing. So I am of course deeply grateful to the Endowment and to this year's fellowship judges for continuing to support those of us who work in this supposed "fourth genre."
With this funding I'm going to continue researching and writing an odd long essay about a perpetual motion machine that was built in Tennessee during the Civil War. Its maker, a man named Asa Jackson, was a Southern supporter who retreated with his machine into a cave for two years when his town was raided and then occupied by Union soldiers. Eventually, once the South was defeated, Asa emerged from his cave with his completed machine, and witnesses claimed that indeed it did work, despite that fact that a perpetual motion machine violates every law of physics that we're aware of in this world. In protest of the North's ultimate victory however, Asa dismantled his contraption in front of the witnesses, claiming that the country didn't deserve his invention. It rests to this day in a museum in Tennessee, tantalizingly, in pieces.
From the essay "What Happens There"
On the same day in Las Vegas when sixteen-year-old Levi Presley jumped from the observation deck of the 1,149-foot-high tower of the Stratosphere Hotel and Casino, lap dancing was temporarily banned by the city in all of its thirty-four licensed strip clubs, archaeologists unearthed shards of the oldest known bottle of Tabasco Brand sauce from beneath a bar called Bucket of Blood, and a woman from Mississippi beat a chicken named Ginger, star of the "$10,000 Chicken Challenge" at the Tropicana Resort, in a 35-minute-long game of tic tac toe.
There was also on that day a second suicide by gunshot, a third one by hanging, the double homicide of teen brothers, the beating of an old man, an overdose, two heart attacks, seventeen highway accidents, and the discovery of a car in the parking lot of a store in which the body of a man was found "white, bloated, and oozing," according to one witness who was interviewed on the news.
At a record 118 degrees it was also the hottest day of the year, a fact that converged eventually with Levi Presley's suicide when a rental car from Utah somehow blew its back tires while traveling through the intersection of two busy streets, causing four separate jams and one alleged fight, and where it found itself stuck when the jack in the trunk of the silver Dodge Stratus sank into the heat-softened asphalt of the street.
We therefore know that when Levi Presley jumped from the tower of the Stratosphere Hotel at 6:01:43 p.m., and eventually hit the ground at 6:01:52 p.m., there were 100 tourists in five dozen cars that were honking and bumping and idling and yelling where Baltimore meets Las Vegas Boulevard. Some of those tourists later said to their friends that they saw in the dark something fall from the sky and then through the palms and then to the sidewalk's pavement, and some of those tourists then emerged from their cars to look down at what had fallen, and ten of those tourists volunteered to give statements that detailed what they had seen as it fell, or after it had fallen, or once the police arrived a half hour later on the scene, but none of their descriptions are available to the public, because, in the words of Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Sergeant Steve Barela, "This ain't gonna sound like some Mickey Spillane novel, man...all I got for you are facts," or because, in the words of Susan Reece, the coordinator of the Las Vegas Suicide Information Center, "Now that kind of thing isn't important to write down...we don't need you writing about any of that," or because, in the words of Michael Gilmartin, the Stratosphere's director of public relations, "Are you kidding me? I don't want to be associated with some piece about a kid who kills himself at my hotel. I mean, jeezus, what's the upside to that? All I can see is a downside. If you can tell me how this story could benefit the hotel then maybe we could discuss it. But right now I don't want to be a part of it. Alright?"
John D'Agata was born and raised on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. He attended the Northfield Mount Hermon School, and later the Intercollegiate Center for Classical Studies in Rome before receiving a BA from Hobart College. He earned MFAs in both nonfiction and poetry from the University of Iowa, and has since taught writing and literature at Colgate, the University of Wyoming, the California Institute of the Arts, and the University of Iowa, where he is now on the permanent faculty of the nonfiction writing program. His first book, Halls of Fame, was published by Graywolf Press. He is also the editor of The Next American Essay, an anthology of innovative nonfiction-the first in a projected 3-volume study of the history of alternative forms of the essay. His next book, About a Mountain, will be published by Norton in 2009.
Photo by A. Algardi