Black Mountain Breakdown is a fine novel with depths that many readers, whether they are those who prefer what is dismissed as “lifestyle lit” or those who would dismiss Smith’s work too easily as such, may not see thanks to their biases…..
In writing a series of essays last summer about the late Joe David Bellamy’s interesting look at the state of litfic in the late 1990’s, I addressed one piece to Bellamy’s celebration of what he termed “super fiction.” Bellamy saw it as a great leap forward for literature – I was pretty meh about it. That’s not going to surprise anyone who has read my work (I’d like to thank all eleven of you at this time) as I am a pretty staunch defender of realism as literary style in all its permutations. Bellamy is generally a generous and thoughtful writer about literary fiction and its practitioners, but in the section of Literary Luxuries that I wrote about in the essay linked above, he refers to what he terms “lifestyle fiction.” He is dismissive of this type of litfic (written, primarily, we should note, by women authors such as Ann Beattie, Ellen Gilchrist, and Lee Smith) as not experimental enough, not ground breaking enough, not, it would seem, challenging enough to readers. Bellamy goes further and tacitly links this genre of writing to reactionary thinking such as that which propels American conservative politics. It’s damning criticism, and, at least for its best writers, unfair. While there is in the work of these writers, of whom Lee Smith is an example, much of the lifestyle of the worlds they live in (there is a domestic life – particularly women’s domestic life – element to the work of these authors that is sometimes derisively referred to as the “Mama and them” theme), their treatments of their chosen subjects, while sometimes unappealing to some readers (particularly males), rings true and has the power of realism. For the reader who appreciates the work of Jane Austen or Charlotte Bronte, both of whom certainly explored the domestic lives of women, the line from those authors to writers like Smith should seem clear.
Nowhere does Lee Smith explore this theme of women’s domestic life, specifically the domestic life of women in the South, more thoughtfully than in Black Mountain Breakdown. The story of Crystal Spangler is the story of a woman, specifically a Southern woman from the mountains of Virginia, that resonates with astute readers because of Smith’s accuracy in capturing the details of both Crystal’s external and internal lives.
Black Mountain Breakdown takes place primarily in the small Virginia town of Black Rock. We first see the main character, Crystal Spangler, at the age of 14, still preoccupied with childish matters such as catching fireflies. Over the course of the novel she enters high school, becomes a cheerleader and beauty queen, loses her beloved father, and becomes the rape victim of her mentally impaired uncle. The trauma of this last event leads Crystal to react as young women who’ve been raped do with alarming frequency: she breaks up with “Mr. Right,” the local high school’s BMOC, becomes involved first with a local “bad boy” (who later becomes a country music star), then dates widely and becomes promiscuous, albeit capriciously which both protects her reputation and enhances her mystique. Her beauty wins her renown and more beauty contest titles. No one, perhaps not even Crystal herself, understands that her beautiful exterior conceals the mess that is her psyche.
She goes away to college in Maryland embraces the bohemian (indeed, hippie) lifestyle for a time until her lover commits suicide, then returns to Black Rock and becomes a teacher and seems to have reached a point of stability and resolve in her life choices. When Mr. Right, now a successful and wealthy businessman who has also “come home,” as we say in the South, wife and twin daughters in tow, asks her to run away with him, the old, live dangerously Crystal is reawakened. She and Roger Lee do run away, Roger Lee gets divorced, he and Crystal marry, and her life seems to have become stable again. Not all is well, though, as is revealed when we learn that Crystal has been unfaithful. When Roger Lee decides to run for Congress, Crystal begins performing the sort of public relations tasks associated with such an activity. On a visit to a mental institution which is seeking the potential congressman’s aid, Crystal stumbles into a room with patients and meets a character who is eerily reminiscent of her uncle. The meeting triggers her re-experience of the rape trauma and at the end of the novel she is back in her mother’s home, paralyzed both physically and emotionally.
What to make of such a story? Well, Black Mountain Breakdown is the sum of both its strengths and weaknesses. It is clearly the bildungsroman of a young woman who is hampered by emotional insecurity (the loss of her father and the sexual assault by her uncle combine to cause a loss of self that no one addresses) in her quest for her true identity and some sort of spiritual peace from the traumas which torment her and drive her questing for purpose in her life. Other characters in the novel (Crystal’s mother Lorene who tries to achieve her own life goals through Crystal; her best friend Agnes who envies her even as she desires her; her great aunts Grace and Nora who provide family history and insight at times but whose benign neglect makes her rape possible) serve as foils to Crystal, but none serves as either spirit guide or as teacher or even as example. She is left then to draw upon the examples of her father and her lover Jerold, whom life has destroyed and her uncle Devere who is both mentally impaired and her rapist. There is Roger Lee, of course, but he sees Crystal as those persons who should have in the novel do – as a commodity, her value lying in her beauty and sexual allure.
Is it any wonder that at the novel’s end she has retreated into being a sort of object? She is what the interactions of her life have made her.
There are minor plot issues (after much detail about her high school years, Crystal’s college years and subsequent flirtation with bohemian life are passed over in a few pages with only one brief scene during an aborted visit home that depicts her during this period so that we don’t quite gather what life with Jerold was like – we only know what the narrator tells us it was like) and Smith’s style is a bit uneven across the course of the novel – in difficult scenes such as the rape scene and the emotional breakdown in the mental facility – Smith’s purposeful ambiguity borders on vagueness. These weaken the novel slightly, but the power of Smith’s story remains. Black Mountain Breakdown is a powerful story of the cost of beauty, the loss of identity, and the need for understanding that a woman experiences.