Meet the Virginia author who’s been described as having “abundant and scary gifts” displayed in his debut potboiler Nitro Mountain.
by Eric J. Wallace
Lee Clay Johnson’s debut novel, Nitro Mountain, is dark, frightening and staggeringly good. So good, in fact, the May 26 release garnered press reminiscent of another famous literary opener, that of Denis Johnson’s Angels.
“[This guy] writes so well that the whole story is one electric current,” wrote 1989 National Book Award winner John Casey in a review.
Elsewhere, in response to Johnson’s efforts, the acclaimed short story writer, frequent Paris Review contributor and novelist David Gates had this to say: “[He’s] a writer with abundant and scary gifts and consummate skill; [he has written] a novel you can’t put down and won’t forget.”
For me, all of this is made infinitely more fascinating by the fact that, in the winter of 2012, on a dismal, rainy night in Charlottesville, Virginia, I shared with Johnson a massive plate of nachos. Washing down the cheese-drenched chips with shooters of bourbon, we talked about writing. More specifically, how we were both failing at it.
“I’ve been teaching at a community college,” he’d admitted with disgust. “But I just decided to quit. I’d rather be a gardener … Teaching is ruining me — I don’t know if I’ll ever write anything worth a damn again.”
However, now, not even four years later, the 32-year-old Charlottesville transplant and UVA MFA program alumnus has penned the kind of book most authors spend their entire lives failing to pull off. Never mind the positive reception and contract with Random House/Penguin, compositionally speaking, Nitro Mountain is packed with one-of-a-kind sentences exploding with innovative language. And yet, the novel is, at heart, a potboiler. Described by Kirkus Reviews as “Appalachian noir at its darkest and most deranged,” reading Nitro Mountain is like being teleported into the passenger’s seat of a 1972 Pontiac Trans Am 455 howling toward a sheer 5,000-foot cliff at 150 mph …
Put another way: The action gets crazy pretty much immediately. Which, while making for spellbinding reading can, for some critics, give rise to accusations of pandering to “shock-value.”
“It was something that I didn’t necessarily set out to do,” says Johnson. “It’s just, I was trying to have as much fun as I possibly could on the page and this is the form the novel took. It was my material and I let it take me where it would.”
Growing up the bar-rat son of bluegrass musicians in Nashville, Tennessee, Johnson says that, while he knew his characters well — how certain demographics in rural Appalachia behaved, felt, talked, thought and lived — the book is “in no way autobiographical.” Because, really, if it was, as Johnson has it, most decent people would be terrified to stand in his presence.
To get a feeling for what he means, read on.
Set in the ravaged coal country of rural southwest Virginia, the novel kicks off with its narrator, out-of-work bass player, Leon, getting dumped by his girlfriend, Jennifer. Dropping her off at the diner where she works, she tells him she’s leaving him for Greg, a manager Leon describes as having “everyone convinced he was a genius.”
“Don’t mess with Greg anymore,” Leon tells her. Climbing out of the truck, Jennifer responds: “Aw, look, it’s jealous.”
This is page one. Midway down page three, we get more disconcerting news. “The last time I’d been seriously drunk with Jennifer she wanted to fight so bad that when I didn’t raise a hand she hit herself right in front of me. I begged her to quit as she threw her fist into her face over and over again, then said, “You coward, if you won’t do it, somebody’s got to.”
By page four, floor-boarding his pickup to the nearest bar — a place called Durty Misty’s — Leon decides to get himself drunk. Here, we meet Arnett, a man that Jennifer will also eventually run off with and, some months later, get shot by (but only in the shoulder). Over Mason jar lids filled with “birdbath[s] of bourbon,” Arnett tells Leon and “bartender Bob” a so-called joke.
Pause. Before we continue, a quick warning: Things are about to get seedy. Sensitive readers, check out now or forever hold your peace.
“Do you know why a girl’s got two holes?” asks clearly drug-addled Arnett. “So you can carry her around like a six-pack.”
No one laughs. And yet, to Leon, Arnett appears “intent, like he’d just imparted some essential information. “Get it?” he said. “Do you get it?””
The statement proves influential. Despite not remembering driving, Leon ends up back at the diner, just after close. Hearing a car door shut around back, he makes his way around the building: Jennifer is climbing into the manager’s car; Greg is dumping a bag of trash. Enraged, Leon attacks. Only, when he swings on Greg, he misses, falls down and gets kicked in the ribs. Laid out gasping on the gravel, he’s forced to watch them leave.
Refusing defeat, drunken Leon scrambles to his feet and gives chase. After flashing back, in real-time, as he’s driving, to a summer-before trip down the same highway, whereupon Jennifer had explained to him how she’d been taught at age 12 by her friend’s married father how to “give him a blowjob,” Leon finds himself barreling into a curve. He doesn’t make it. Next day, he wakes up in the hospital with a DUI, a broken arm and a murdered truck.
Cradling her brother’s hand, Leon’s sister, a born-again Jesus freak, offers what she believes is consolation: “You still have a lot ahead of you.”
His reply? “That’s what I’m afraid of.”
All this, ladies and gentleman, has occurred by page 10. And, for Leon & company, things only get worse. It’s like they’ve all been caught in an inverse cyclone — lives spiral out of control, crashing through catastrophe after catastrophe toward one fantastic (and inevitable) demise.
When asked about the ‘bleakness’ of his material, Johnson smirks.
“I think writers can have this tendency to worry about what they’re putting down, how the work will be perceived as some extension of who you are, some indicator of your own experience or personality. The biggest thing I’ve run into is people describing the novel as ‘grotesque,’ as if that somehow inherently detracts from the work’s value.”
In Johnson’s opinion, this propensity for critical dismissiveness is, generally speaking, cheap and misapplied.
“For me, what the mainstream calls ‘dark’ or ‘grotesque’ is often the cold, hard reality of facts that are hard to acknowledge and recognize,” he says. “It’s what we try to hide … and I think it’s the fiction writer’s job to bring those things to the surface so they can be examined.”
Be that as it may, Nitro Mountain is certainly no ride for the squeamish. However, if you can attenuate to the humor, Lee Clay Johnson makes ‘getting worse’ pretty dang fun.
“[T]he novel abounds with ugly acts wrapped in beautiful language,” explains short-story guru Amy Hempel. “How can it be as funny as it is, then? Hilarious, harsh, original — meet Lee Clay Johnson.”
Nitro Mountain is one of our 2016 summer reads.View our full Summer Reading List here.
Photo courtesy of Lee Clay Johnson.
Eric J. Wallace is a freelance writer living in Virginia. He can be reached via email at [email protected]