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The Laughing Monsters by Denis Johnson

The Laughing Monsters (2014)

by Denis Johnson

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Denis Johnson obviously has a thing for espionage as it’s supposedly practiced today. Although it’s set a few decades in the past, Tree of Smoke centered on the gathering, use, and misuse of intelligence, in particular military intelligence. In The Laughing Monsters we get spies plying their trade again, although in this case the misbehavior seems to drown out the good behavior. The Laughing Monsters features Denis Johnson’s unvarnished prose in the service of a seemingly random plot - there’s no reason a spy caper should follow logic, is there? - and a venal, unstable, impossible-to-predict first person narrator. It’s engaging as hell.

The height of Mr. Johnson’s powers comes into play here: we accompany a presumably competent narrator through a halting, lurching reality, some of it built on a seeming sense, the rest on lunatic delusion, or maybe hallucination. This presentation challenges the reader to keep her balance as best she can, because she’s going to need it to weather the storms of apparent betrayal, incarceration, near-death from thirst, and the constant - and not always successful - running from the authorities.

On the face of the narrative, we have Nair, a captain in the Danish army and spy for an arm of NATO. In Sierra Leone he meets up with a friend, a black man, Michael Adriko, from an African tribe, who has lived in the US for some time. Michael is “attached” as a trainer to the US Army but might be AWOL. Michael has cooked up a harebrained scheme to sting some very shady characters out of millions by selling them fake enriched uranium. Nair has an equally underhanded scheme afoot when the two team up. While trailing along with him, Nair helps Micheal defy death in a couple of frightening scrapes, while trying to steal his fiancée, who for some reason is with Michael in Africa.

Yes, it’s a screwy plot, delightfully so; rather simple on the surface, but full of convolutions underneath. I found the most entertaining prose written in the dialog. Nair’s interrogation by an American intelligence official is supreme. I wanted to put in a sample, but there’s just too much. The verbal sparring between the spy and the counterspy, often in sentences of three or fewer words, is priceless. I laughed, I reread it, and I laughed all over again. Conversations among Nair, Michael, and the fiancée Davidia, are almost as funny.

The Laughing Monsters is a slim, entertaining spy caper, where spies use their knowledge and skills to reach for ill-gotten gains. We don’t know for most of the book whether Nair and Michael are friends or enemies. There is certainly no giveaway or hint of how the thing will turn out, so no spoilers here, either.

The monsters of the title are many: there is a mountain range called that, the ubiquitous armed bands of looters and rapists that populate parts of Africa are certainly monsters, and the U.S., which displays its monstrousness through military assets and its use of law for convenience. I compare this to Nobody Move, Johnson’s celebrated short piece, for its focus on the moral shadows, for its brand of action, and for its injection of delightful dialog. ( )
  LukeS | Mar 29, 2016 |
The Laughing Monsters (2014) is an antic novel that focuses on two friends—one white, one black—whose wild adventure starts in pre-Ebola Freetown, Sierra Leone, and unravels across Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Ghana. Their goal is to make a financial killing doing something—selling government secrets, peddling fake uranium—then retire to a life on the beach.
Roland Nair, the book’s narrator, is a Scandinavian/American/NATO spook and an admitted coward in a land where courage needs to come in more than the liquid form he prefers. His long-time friend, handsome Michael Adriko, a son of Uganda, teeters on the edge of a major breakdown. Adriko’s undeniable courage and latent lethality is a good way to get both men into trouble. And does. But is Nair working with Adriko or against him?
Also along for the ride is Michael’s fifth fiancée, Davidia, daughter of a U.S. military commander running a secret post somewhere in the Congo. Davidia is beautiful—men’s “gazes followed behind her as if she swept them along with her hands,” and both Nair and Adriko want her. She’s patiently trying to make the best of their low-budget accommodations and travel arrangements, but even she reaches her limit and, anyway, her father wants her back.
Johnson, who won the National Book Award for his 2007 novel about Vietnam, Tree of Smoke, effectively evokes the fractured spirit of the place—the do-si-do-ing for advantage of the operatives loosely connected with various spy agencies with whom they negotiate, the tunnel vision of the American military personnel, the sinister and sometimes overtly threatening village residents they encounter when they’re far from transportation and cell phone coverage.
The author presents his characters with precision and a fine appreciation for absurdity. Here’s how Nair describes one of Michael’s reckless schemes: “As [Michael] expressed these ideas he followed them with his eyes, watching them gallop away to the place where they made sense.”
Johnson is equally good at conveying the sensory-overload of the African environment: not only the mind-baking heat and the mud and the tainted water, but the ramshackle villages and spluttering vehicles, the barmen and the prostitutes. Nair plunges into political incorrectness with an unforgettable description of an African prostitute “wearing a curly blonde wig, like a chocolate-covered Marilyn Monroe.”
I really enjoyed the first 175 pages or so of this 228-page book, though in the final section, the gods of chaos and Really Bad Hangovers hijacked the narrative, and I felt I was losing the thread. On the whole, it is as described by New York Times critic Joy Williams, “cheerfully nihilistic” as it lays bare the “giddy trickle-down of global exploitation and hubris—the farcical exploits of cold dudes in a hard land.” ( )
  Vicki_Weisfeld | Nov 3, 2015 |
Good writing but I just couldn't stay interested. ( )
  eenerd | Sep 29, 2015 |
Perhaps this book was just too far out of my comfort zone, but I have to admit that I didn't finish it. According to my Kindle I got to 90%, but that's when I decided I couldn't go any further. I no longer knew what was going on. In fact, it was worse than that. I no longer cared.

I know others who would not bother to write about a DNF, but for a while there, I thought it had some good things going for it. I thought I knew what the central characters were trying to do, although I must admit to some confusing moments. I thought the description of the squalid state of things in Sierra Leone and the Congo rang true, but then I simply didn't recognise the protagonists as the book drew to the end. ( )
  smik | May 13, 2015 |
One of Johnson's lighter works. 'Train Dreams' is one of my favorite books. 'The Laughing Monsters' didn't come close to it in terms of writing or story. It was an entertaining romp, but a little hard to take seriously. ( )
  eachurch | Apr 30, 2015 |
Showing 1-5 of 13 (next | show all)
“The Laughing Monsters” is a minor work — there’s no rocketing prose or conceptual jumping of lanes. Cheerfully nihilistic, it’s a buddy book dependent for much of its situation on several of Johnson’s early journalistic pieces about Liberia and Charles Taylor and the “atmosphere of happy horror” pervasive at the time. The whores and martinis and low-rent espionage seem no more than familiarly nostalgic, as does a time pre-Ebola. Africa is a hard land and it’s getting even harder.
added by ozzer | editNew York Times, JOY WILLIAMS (Nov 7, 2014)
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0374280592, Hardcover)

A post-9/11 literary spy thriller from the National Book Award–winning author of Tree of Smoke

Roland Nair calls himself Scandinavian but travels on a U.S. passport. After ten years’ absence, he returns to Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, to reunite with his friend Michael Adriko. They once made a lot of money here during the country’s civil war, and, curious to see whether good luck will strike twice in the same place, Nair allows himself to be drawn back to a region he considers hopeless.
     Adriko is an African who styles himself a soldier of fortune and who claims to have served, at various times, the Ghanaian army, the Kuwaiti Emiri Guard, and the American Green Berets. He’s probably broke now, but he remains, at thirty-six, as stirred by his own doubtful schemes as he was a decade ago.
     Although Nair believes some kind of money-making plan lies at the back of it all, Adriko’s stated reason for inviting his friend to Freetown is for Nair to meet Adriko’s fiancée, a college girl named Davidia from Colorado. Together the three set out to visit Adriko’s clan in the Uganda-Congo borderland—but each of these travelers is keeping secrets from the others.
     Shadowed by Interpol, the Mossad, and MI6, Nair gets mired in lust and betrayal in a landscape of frighteningly casual violence as he travels with Adriko and Davidia, gets smuggled into a war zone, gets kidnapped by the Congo Army, and is terrorized by a self-proclaimed god ruling over a dying village. Their journey through a land abandoned by the future leads Adriko, Nair, and Davidia to meet themselves not in a new light, but rather in a new darkness.
     A high-suspense tale of kaleidoscoping loyalties in the post-9/11 world, Denis Johnson’s The Laughing Monsters shows one of our great novelists at the top of his game.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:18:07 -0400)

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