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Beyond the Valley of the Groovy

Every thing you wanted to know about the Burning Man festival but were afraid to ask, and were right to be.

By 8.18.04

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This Is Burning Man
By Brian Doherty
(Little Brown, 256 pages, $24.95)

WASHINGTON -- Reason senior editor Brian Doherty's can't-put-it-down new book on the Burning Man festival left me with one basic, overriding thought: God bless the man for going, so I won't have to.

I never packed it off to the Nevada desert for much-ballyhooed debauch, but the temptation was there. After all, I'm a huge fan of guns and fire, and so a festival based primarily on burning and shooting, unrestrained by the usual social mores, seemed all right by me.

Sure, I'd heard that the festival also served as a nexus for drugged-out hippies and computer geeks attempting to get in touch with their inner bohemian (read: hook up with aforementioned hippies). Stubborn teetotaler that I am, that's not really my scene, but I figured if I was diligent enough with the ammo and the fire, folks who wanted to earnestly chat about life, love, and the universe would steer clear.

Alas, the sort of shenanigans that would have drawn me to Burning Man are but memories now. The guns are gone, the fires strictly regulated. In its place a kind of traveling art circus has sprung up, the likes of which -- what with its sculptures, drum circles, and naked women -- caters equally to the horn-rim glasses coffeehouse set, folks who drive around in refurbished VW vans, and twentysomethings who literally cannot wait for the next X-Men flick.

IF YOU BELONG TO ONE of these groups and haven't heard of Burning Man ("The new American holiday" -- Wired magazine), the book is liable to send you into convulsions. The ringleaders of this show even have comic book names like Flash, Danger Ranger, and Dark Angel.

Here are some choice sights Doherty, himself a nine year "Burner," lays out for readers: a Temple of Atonement where folks can whip or be whipped, depending on their own proclivities; golf with burning toilet paper rolls; a camp catering to gay men called Jiffy Lube with a carved wood sculpture of two men having sex as a marker; a troop of Porn Clowns "with fingers up each other's orifices." There are dozens of large-scale installation art pieces -- made of everything from steel to cow bones -- that sound interesting, but not enough to sleep on the ground in the desert to see.

And while the author is so obviously in love with everything about the Burning Man "community" that his joy radiates off the printed page, it hardly seems the place for curmudgeons, or even the sober.

"Did you ever believe life could be this wonderful?" one young woman asks Doherty, who likewise gushes about his ability to have "heartfelt and funny conversations" with the superiorly open-minded folks at Burning Man on "almost any topic imaginable, from electricity deregulation to Reiki healing to comic books to ancient weaponry to high-level electro physics to metallurgy to Eagle Scouting." As tempting as it sounds to talk about Eagle Scouting with a clown while his finger is in another man's orifice, I think I'll pass.

ASIDE FROM SERVING as the first decent history of the festival, This Is Burning Man is an interesting piece of anthropology concerning how cultural phenomena affect their creators -- not always for the better.

The grandfather of Burning Man, Larry Harvey, used to say that the first event was the outgrowth of his misery of being jilted by an ex-girlfriend. By the time Doherty gets around to interviewing him, his head is floating somewhere out there in space and he insists he has created a brand-new medium for human interaction. Harvey says he doesn't want to be part of "counterculture history" but when asked about his vision for Burning Man, he begins, "We have to go beyond the valley of the groovy."

Another of the event organizers posits: "What is being alive? What is living? There's a chance you may die at Burning Man, but you will never be more alive." On its own, it's a harmless sentiment -- Jim Jones sans the Kool-Aid. Being in a piece of performance art or sitting in a drum circle with a bunch of stoners is not high up on my list of things I need to do on my last night on earth, but we've all got different hopes and aspirations.

Doherty's book has the feel of an Everything You've Always Wanted to Know About Burning Man But Were Afraid to Ask. Likely it will repel as many people from the festival as it attracts, but it's a good read either way. It's always good to know what you're missing.

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