Sunday, June 19, 2016

Nitro Mountain by Lee Clay Johnson

“Do you know what growing up means? It means learning how to beat a woman. Trying to kill a man. Posting up at a worn-out palace with a loaded gun and waiting to deal with the consequences of what you’ve done.”

I don’t think I’ve ever taken my own picture for a book review before, but it feels right for this one. I took it with me on a weekend camping trip and found a spot next to a stream to finish it. Nature has a personality in Nitro Mountain, and not a good one. Being in nature was a great way to get into the book but when I was done, the woods seemed a little less friendly.

Nitro Mountain is the connected stories of several people in Bordon, a nothing little town in the Virginia wilderness. The book starts with Leon, who plays bass with a broken arm. It drifts on to drug-dealer Arnett and later, his girlfriend Jennifer. Other characters make appearances: a talented but aimless musician, a suspended sheriff looking for a chance to get his job back. Others- parents, ex-wives, waitresses and mentoring bartenders- get a mention or two. Some are just looking for direction and some are deeply psychotic. Some mostly hurt themselves, some go a long way to hurt others, most do a little of both. All of them are trapped in the same kind of life, shaped by poverty, drinking, and violence. For them,  abuse and addiction are like bad weather: unlucky but a part of life no one can avoid. The book winds from one life to the next, through missed court dates, bluegrass shows, days spent at dead end jobs and nights spent drinking at the same bars. 

Above all of it is Nitro Mountain. At first the mountain is just a bleak backdrop of bare-branched white oaks and foggy pine valleys. But the woods are a place for people to hide and things to be hidden. Vultures and “corpse-like cattle” make their home in it, next to even more ominous animals. The mountain becomes a brutal, apathetic witness to the lives of Leon, Jennifer, Arnett, and the other people of Bordon. It surrounds them and rises over them, putting the town in its shadow. It watches how they waste their days, watches the creative ways they hurt the people they care about, and it watches all their dead-ended attempts to escape the circuit of pain and hopelessness that runs through their town.