Debut novel ‘Nitro Mountain’ explodes on the literary scene

'Nitro Mountain' author Lee Clay Johnson — Robert Cohen

After you read a few chapters of Tennessee author Lee Clay Johnson’s first novel, “Nitro Mountain,” you might picture him as an old cuss of a hillbilly seated on a rickety porch in the hollers, with a spittoon at his side and a shotgun over his lap. But Mr. Johnson, in his early 30s, appears gently bred, hailing from a family of bluegrass musicians in Nashville, and elevated by a B.A. from Bennington College, followed by an M.F.A. from the University of Virginia.

Last Thursday night, Mr. Johnson read a few pages from his novel, and his voice held only a trace of that Southern lilt, sounding more like Leslie Howard in “Gone With the Wind” than any of the low-life characters he brings to life in “Nitro Mountain.”.

The protagonist, Oscar, can still play bass guitar even with his arm in a cast (the accident due to a drunken flip of his truck). Oscar relates, “We were halfway through the first set when I saw Rachel. She had her arm in the air, a beer in one hand, and was dancing around with her eyes closed like she was climbing an invisible ladder. All kinds of bad dudes were looking at her. Nobody was talking to her. Then the man with the Daffy Duck tattoo handed her another drink.”

Poor broken-armed Oscar is back living with his parents, and everyone around him speaks as his personal Oracle of Delphi as they predict his life will go nowhere; his chances are used up. He lusts after ex-girlfriend Jennifer, a kindhearted waitress, who herself lusts after the aforementioned Daffy Duck tattoo dude, Arnett, who is unmistakably a psychopath inclined to drug use, battery, and rape.

Mr. Johnson wrote on Literary Hub that while composing the mad tale in a mountain house surrounded by ancient forests, with his dog Sid as his continuous muse and company, the evil Arnett simply “leapt off the page,” shocking the daylights out of his creator.

If it sounds as if this reviewer, having read “Nitro Mountain,” is now cowering under her duvet in the fetal position, well, all I can say is that this superbly well-written and tightly crafted book is not for the faint of heart. In fact, I would advise all women over a certain age to pick up a good old Agatha Christie instead. Even young women will conceivably have some problem with it. During the Q & A portion of Mr. Johnson’s reading, Oak Bluffs librarian Carolina Cooney asked if he’d been braced by anyone about the misogyny running through the story. He took a deep breath and said, “Oh yeah.”

But no matter, Mr. Johnson is a literary juggernaut. Shortly after finishing his draft, he landed in the loving mentorship of awardwinning novelist David Gates, who blurbs on the back of “Nitro Mountain,” “[The novel] mines the darkest corners of contemporary Appalachia: a still lovely yet ravaged landscape whose people sometimes maintain their bedrock decency and dignity and sometimes tunnel into perversion, violence, and madness. It’s also appallingly funny — the sort of reckless, dangerous comedy Flannery O’Connor might have written if she’d known more about drink, drugs, and country music.”

Seemingly without much fuss or the usual beginner’s heartbreak of rejection letters, Mr. Johnson found an adoring editor at Alfred A. Knopf. The author’s recent appearance on Martha’s Vineyard marks the eighth stop on a national book tour, so the old Hollywood saying “Sell the sizzle, not the steak” seems to be self-limiting here: The steak itself is sizzling and hot off the grill.

Mr. Johnson’s connection to the Island is by way of Oak Bluffs library program director Nate Luce, who became good buddies with him at Bennington College. “He taught me how to cook,” Mr. Luce said as he introduced the author. They lived with a collection of buddies in a co-op. Mr. Johnson, once he had hold of the mic, extended the culinary lesson with the advice, “Always start with onions.”

The comments after the author read from his tantalizing prose were thought-provoking. Audience member Debbie Dean wondered if he’d been influenced by the fiction of George Saunders. Someone else asked if he felt he was being lumped into the genre of Southern Gothic. Mr. Johnson took this in stride. “I feel very connected to the region,” he said. In the face of the question of misogyny, he explained that all of the male characters are similarly wounded, mentally and/or physically. When another participant asked if writing so intense a drama is therapeutic, he grinned and said, “I’m guessing the only thing therapeutic for me would be therapy. Which I need.”

Another audience member asked about Mr. Johnson’s writing process. The author said he waives the necessity for an outline. Each day’s writing takes him where it will, although his mashup at the end of “Nitro Mountain,” with many characters and a crazy quilt of action, required the use of string maps on note cards tacked to the wall.

He said his greatest influence was his growing-up years in bluegrass bars where the heavy layer of smoke rested above his head — that’s how small he was. He was particularly moved when his mother sang what’s known in the hollers as “murder ballads.”

Perhaps it’s fair to say “Nitro Mountain” is a prose murder ballad. So if “Pretty Polly” is your cup of country tea, then Mr. Johnson’s “abundant and scary gifts and consummate skills” (as Mr. Gates describes them) will entice you.