STARRED REVIEW
May 17, 2016

A bold depiction of rural American life

By Lee Clay Johnson

When asked about their ethnicity, people in Appalachia are the most likely to reply that they are Americans. So perhaps it is fitting that American noir writing seems to have relocated to Appalachia. Think of Cormac McCarthy's Suttree and the derivative writings of Chris Offutt. But little feels derivative about Lee Clay Johnson's debut, Nitro Mountain.

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When asked about their ethnicity, people in Appalachia are the most likely to reply that they are Americans. So perhaps it is fitting that American noir writing seems to have relocated to Appalachia. Think of Cormac McCarthy's Suttree and the derivative writings of Chris Offutt. But little feels derivative about Lee Clay Johnson's debut, Nitro Mountain. It is an excellent specimen, appalling in its subject matter but deft in execution.

The novel begins with Leon, a nullity facing a DUI charge. He floats between gigs as a bass player and a job at "Foodville.” One day a villain named Arnett intoxicates him on Robot, a mix of meth and heroin. Leon and Arnett share a love interest, a sassy and ferocious woman named Jennifer, who convinces Leon to poison Arnett. This initiates a train of violence so breathtaking it's a wonder the town and its people survive. Fueling the violence is what Arnett calls splo, aka moonshine.

Appalachia was always hardscrabble and forsaken. But even amidst the coal era it had social cohesion and national worth. In Johnson's version, a woman's best career is turning tricks or soft porn. For men there's military service, or hauling trash or selling blood. Or music. "Now that the coal's gone," says one character, "music's our only damn export." There's no Main Street. There are only boarded-up buildings dwarfed by superstores and fast food joints.

Nitro Mountain comes recommended by David Gates, whose novel Jernigan also studied American life on the skids. Both novels are intelligent and sympathetic portraits of hard-up people making bad, justifiable decisions. Much of Nitro Mountain occurs in bars soundtracked by electronic lottery and Hank Williams. "Nothing's as sad," writes Johnson, "as the sound of happy hour ending."

Johnson's savage prose more than compensates for the maudlin milieu. Today a need for haste infects most writers. Johnson forces you to slow down. The language is bold, arresting and well-timed. The main characters are also drawn with depth and sincerity. This is especially true of Jennifer. Her faint hopes for a better life are overcome by the necessity of surviving in this one. The novel's finale is sordid and irreversible, recalling perhaps The Beans of Egypt, Maine.

But this is a novel about Americans, which is to say about freedom. Its characters are hard-pressed and lamentable. But they think themselves free, and to that extent, they are.

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Nitro Mountain

Nitro Mountain

By Lee Clay Johnson
Knopf
ISBN 9781101946367

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