Author Lee Clay Johnson gets high praise for dark humor

Lee Clay Johnson follows the dark plight of Virginia coal country characters with humor in his debut novel, Nitro Mountain.
(publicity image) Lee Clay Johnson follows the dark plight of Virginia coal country characters with humor in his debut novel, Nitro Mountain. (publicity image)

Charlottesville transplant and UVA alumni Lee Clay Johnson’s debut novel, Nitro Mountain, was released to raves from both critics and peers.

Kirkus Reviews called it “Appalachian noir at its darkest and most deranged.” Novelist David Gates, a former Guggenheim fellow and Pulitzer Prize finalist, introduced it at a reading as “appallingly funny,” saying it’s “the sort of reckless, dangerous comedy Flannery O’Conner might have written if she’d known more about drink, drugs and country music. Johnson is a writer with abundant and scary gifts and consummate skill.”

The book is jarring. A morbid plunge into psychic darkness rarely encountered beyond tomes such as Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. But with Nitro Mountain, it’s less slow-death-by-depression and more explosive-Stephen-King-thriller. Characters are pitched into the throes of wild sociopathic breakdowns, the pages blister and crackle with intensity, and there is a kind of relentless shock factor your average reader might (understandably) define as grotesque.

“I’m doing this book tour at the moment,” Johnson said in a recent phone interview. “And it’s interesting to me how people apply the terms ‘dark’ or ‘grotesque.’ I think that, oftentimes, what the mainstream calls dark actually encompasses the facts that are hardest to acknowledge and recognize. It’s what we try to hide.”

The novel is set in an economically decimated former coal-mining town in southwestern Virginia, where—with nothing better to do—the characters live in a perpetual drug-and-booze-addled fog. One of the book’s leads—a country songwriter named Jones—asks himself how long it’s been since he woke up without a hangover. “Maybe once, twice in five years. Or maybe not at all,” he says nonchalantly.

Another main character, Arnett—who within a couple dozen pages gets slapped with felony charges for planting a pee-cam in the women’s restroom of the bar he manages—winds up earning a living selling bootleg corn liquor and a heroin/methamphetamine crossbreed known as robot. We later learn this fellow not only witnessed his father murder his mother, but he watched as dear old dad shoved a deer hoof deep into her womb.

Within the first two pages you realize these people are more than fucked—they are doomed. The chaos gets underway when a young woman, Jennifer, breaks up with her long-term boyfriend, Leon, just after his arrival to pick her up in the rain from the crappy little diner where she works. She tells him she’s going to run off with the establishment’s “really smart” manager. After watching his girl climb into said manager’s pickup, in a fit of drunken rage, Leon throws his pickup into drive and gives pursuit. However, things quickly go awry. Leon blasts full-speed into a wet curve and hurtles into a barrel-roll that is stopped by a large tree. Soon enough, the police come. Leon’s arm is broken, and he is charged with a DUI. All of this he learns the next day when he wakes up in the hospital.

As a reader, you cannot help identify with the gorgeous Blue Ridge Mountains setting of Appalachia, despite the narrative’s depressive sense of all-permeating grayness. A kind of insurmountable shit-rain that, psychically speaking, precludes any sunlight.

In his own way, Johnson echoes the truth. “I think it’s the fiction writer’s job to dig up that stuff, to bring it to the surface,” he says. “It’s not my responsibility to reaffirm to the book-buying public that everything is happy.” —Eric J. Wallace

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