It is hardly sufficient to say the debut novel from Lee Clay Johnson, Nitro Mountain, is a dark book. But that one word is as good a place as any to begin a descent into this strikingly evoked world of depravity, degradation, and bad romance in Bordon, Virginia, a remote crevice of Appalachia where “the roads and houses seemed to be crushed beneath the foothills, on the verge of burial.” Cover to cover, the book exerts a fierce magnetic pull, sucking its reader into a profound desolation. I kept picking it up and sniffing it, expecting to get a strong draft of bourbon, man-sweat, blood, and dirt—as of a freshly-dug grave.
In the Virginia foothills, a young, reckless bass player named Leon has been freshly kicked to the curb by his girlfriend. His broken heart results in a broken arm when he totals his truck while driving drunk in a lovesick rage. After leaving the hospital, he takes up at his parents’ house to heal and await his court date. It’s a grim scene for convalescence: Leon’s father gets by on disability, Budweiser, and pot dealt by the high-school kid next door. His own mother sees Leon as a drain on their meager finances. Before long, he jumps at an out—the chance to tour with a band backing another local musician, a guy named Jones, busted arm be damned. Leon does his best to perform on the road, but his injury and more hard living eventually send him back to Bordon and his bleak sickbay.
Along the way he gets mixed up with a local drug dealer and addict who takes an interest in Leon’s ex, Jennifer. From Arnett Atkins’s first appearance in the novel—a surreal scene in a barroom supply closet, where all kinds of wrongness goes down—he is a villainous horror-show, with teeth “thin and burnt-looking like used matches” and a Daffy Duck tattoo on his throat. His proclivity for out-and-out weirdness and twisted humor suggests a barely restrained sociopathic streak, and he only grows more captivating as a figure of pure menace as he becomes the center of the novel’s gathering storm.
In telling this story, Johnson makes some interesting choices about point of view: in the book’s first section we get Leon’s own narration, and in its second we rove through the minds of a number of key players in the novel’s swift-paced, escalating action. In its setting and conflicts, Nitro Mountain belongs to the Southern Gothic literary tradition, but it shares pacing and plot moves with some of the strong dramas being written for television today. It’s not hard to imagine this book destined for a second life as gritty televised spectacle: in its clipped syntax, it already suggests the format of a screenplay, and many of its characters are familiar: two ex-cops who can’t stay out of crime-fighting, hard-drinking musicians who are their own best enemies.
But Johnson’s writing authenticates these characters, makes them irresistible in all their deeply wounded dysfunction. Almost all of them have suffered trauma, for which, it’s clear, their various versions of ruin are to blame. We are not asked to excuse or forgive their transgressions because they’ve suffered, but we are certainly shown an uncompromisingly bleak cycle at work in an array of small-town lives.
Nowhere is this truer than in the novel’s third and final section, a sort of coda narrated by Jennifer, the young woman who forms a warped love triangle with Leon and Arnett. In Jennifer, Johnson delivers his most cutting example of how past damage can sentence a future. Jennifer asks men to hit her; she has sex with men she knows are using her; she has lived a life of crime. She is not stupid, but she has fully internalized an idea of her own lack of worth—for her, being punished provides a twisted form of purpose. No figure in Nitro Mountain elicits a more crushing despair.
The scary thing is, Jennifer is far from alone in her life of bad circumstances and questionable logic. When the musician Jones recalls his ex, Natalie, smacking his face because he called her a slut, he also remembers what she said: “I ain’t mad at you for saying that…I’m mad at you for not saying it until now.”
In the end, Leon’s melancholy observation of a leaf floating in the sky serves as a kind of thesis for Nitro Mountain: “But the more I stared at it, the more it looked like a small hole, a little puncture wound in the sky. What if there was an entire world behind the surface of this one? A darker place made of all the things we hide?”
Susannah Felts is a writer, editor, and educator in Nashville, as well as co-founder of The Porch, a nonprofit literary center. She is the author of This Will Go Down On Your Permanent Record, a novel, and numerous journal and magazine articles.