You don't want to hear about my dream last night, or my acid trip last week. Similarly, my Burning Man encounter with a mad sheik giving away Girl Scout cookies on the deck of a motorized Spanish galleon has a similar "you had to be there" quality. Yes, Burning Man has always been hard to write about. How do you convey what's powerful and meaningful about an event that's made up of thousands of people's highly personal, trippy experiences?
Brian Doherty's book This Is Burning Man provides both a solution to this problem and arguably the best prose ever written about the 18-year-old festival. In much the same way that Tom Wolfe did in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Doherty tells the story of a subculture through an ensemble cast of eccentrics and their larger-than-life adventures. We learn about the event's birth and growing pains through the antics and feuds of founder Larry Harvey and his cohorts. To show how Burning Man transformed and grew from a San Francisco Cacophony Society party into an international art happening, Doherty profiles a handful of Black Rock City's most creative sculptors and machinists.
A seven-year veteran of Burning Man and senior editor at Reasonmagazine, Doherty is close enough to his subjects to really understand them, but journalist enough to avoid starry-eyed sycophantism. His hilarious, often snarky details about Burning Man and its participants are what bring the story to life. Industrial physicist Austin Richards, aka Dr. Megavolt, comes to Burning Man with an enormous tesla coil and zaps himself with it from inside a protective suit. We learn that Richards "orders milk with his meals" and "refers to women as 'gals.'" Bookish Larry Harvey "lards his talk with references to the British masters like Shakespeare and Dickens, and, if he's feeling contemporary, E.M. Forster." By the end of the book we've grown to care enough about the people involved to worry and dream along with them about what the future holds for Burning Man.
One criticism of This Is Burning Man: The book focuses nearly exclusively on straight males. Amid its scores of miniprofiles and larger characterizations, only two women (both artists) are featured. And no main characters are gay. Since lots of women and gay people go to the event, work in the organization that puts it on, and have helped contribute mightily to its history, their unremarked absence from Doherty's book can only mean that he doesn't find them and their stories especially interesting or important. It's unfortunate that when future generations read this book (as they should) to learn about Burning Man, they will get the male-buddy version of the story, incorrectly passing itself off as the definitive history.