Nitro Mountain – Lee Clay Johnson
Cloaked in hillbilly noir and backwoods mystique, Nitro Mountain tells a story of a small, decrepit mining town and its violent underbelly. Leon, an aimless bass player lining for his lost love Jennifer, agrees to a pact to kill her current lover Arnett, the town’s psychotic drug dealer. The ripple affects of these actions rumble throughout the community, as the locals try to keep their heads down and the small pool of heroes try to brings Arnett down. The story weaves together murder, torture, drugs, domestic abuse, and music to create a dark image of the terror lining the stomach of Bordon, Virginia. Johnson nails the eerie, grimy tone of backwoods mystery. He paints with extremely gratuitous brush strokes, never shying away from gory violence and revolting levels of misogyny. My particularly favorite-but-most-hated line appears just eight pages in, when Leon describes an empty diner. “Chairs were upside down on the tables and I could see all their legs in the air, a hundred little whores taking it.” Punny, right?
The book jumps between perspectives, taking us first through Leon’s eyes. He is abruptly killed off, a gutsy move for a first-person novel, and we are then shoved into the view from Jones’ corner, a local musician, as well as several their locals who largely seem to just be spectating on the madness within the town. It’s during this phase that we also are allowed into the head of Arnett. Arnett is one truly crazy dude. His violence knows no bounds, and his attitude toward Jessica is….appalling to say the least. If you like a brutal villain, look no further. If you hate characters motivated by women-hating, stay far away from this book. Finally, we are able to conclude with Jessica’s point of view. Now a battered woman-in-hiding, she continues to subject herself to terrible men. Her fragile mind has accepted the terrors long forces upon her by disrespectful men. So when Arnett reappears, she is swallowed up in his rage one final time. This was the shortest section, but one of the strongest in the book. Despite all the horrid ravaged upon her by Arnett, her PTSD-stricken psyche still feels guilty for her own actions. This section is an infuriating and heartbreaking glimpse into the mind of abuse survivors.
The shifts between perspectives happen quickly for such a short book, so the first and final portions of the book feel jittery, leaving the middle as a happily bulky section of uninterrupted action. Again, I reiterate, if you don’t jive with descriptive brutality and graphic violence toward women, don’t come near this book. However, I think Johnson really succeeded in creating a creepy and incredibly dark tale of rural horror, complete with vivid southern gothic tones and the slow-burn intrigue of a crime thriller.