Halfway through Denis Johnson’s The Laughing Monsters, the question arrives.
From an African-born mercenary to a Danish-American spook comes the essence of this whole fast-paced thriller, the question I suspect Johnson places at the root of a great many men’s great many misdeeds: “Do you really want to go back to that boring existence?”
And with his simple reply of “never,” Roland Nair bares his motivation like his fair European skin to the African sunshine that “would crash down like a hot anvil,” as Johnson writes in the novel’s opening pages.
In style and subject matter, Johnson has chameleoned through the past three-plus decades. He hopped from the drug-addled scoundrels of his celebrated short story collection Jesus’ Son (1992) to the Vietnam-era epic of his National Book Award-winning Tree of Smoke (2007) to his savvy stab at detective noir in Nobody Move (2009). But Johnson’s characters overall—and always his best ones—tend to run, bristling with stubborn (and so often self-destructive) vehemence, away from any sort of boring existence.
The Laughing Monsters begins with Nair’s arrival in Africa after an 11-year absence. Landing in the Sierra Leone capital of Freetown, an Atlantic port city that Johnson brings alive by concentrating not so much on the environment but on the rhythm of its people and streets, Nair begins his mission. A NATO intelligence agent, he’s tasked with reporting on one Michael Adriko, an old friend whose history with Nair includes episodes in Sierra Leone’s civil war and America’s post-9/11 fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan. “Michael’s truth lives only in the myth. In the facts and the details, it dies,” Nair observes, though according to his NATO bosses, Michael is currently attached to the U.S. Army and is most likely AWOL.
Even as he files his first report—void of any helpful details—Nair thinks back to the bosses in his home of Amsterdam, rueful about the assignment and defiant at his core: “And while you, my superiors, may think I’ve come to join him in Africa because you’ve dispatched me here, you’re mistaken. I’ve come back because I love the mess. Anarchy. Madness. Things falling apart. Michael only makes my excuse for returning.”
From their first reconnecting moments, the two men act as self-interested operatives, simultaneously plotting together and holding back their true motives. Into this house of mirrors walks slender, elegant and graceful Davidia, Michael’s African-American fiancée. She captures Nair’s lustful mind.
Repeating his mantra of “more will be revealed,” Michael leads the trio from Sierra Leone to Uganda, the details sketchy but the purpose (at least) twofold: The Congolese orphan returns to the land of his people for his wedding, while setting the pieces up for either a deal or a swindle involving enriched uranium. “You just tickle their terrorism bone and they ejaculate all kinds of money,” Michael says of the potential buyers.
Later, as the potential deal grows closer, he adds, “Since nine-eleven, chasing myths and fairy tales has turned into a serious business. An industry. A lucrative one.”
With those terrorism references, the fact that Nair is not wholly American looms significant. It allows Johnson to place America’s role in post-9/11 world muckery in the greater context of centuries of European nations manipulating the world outside their own boundaries, whether colonially, commercially, or clandestinely.
From the mundane (t-shirts bearing soda pop slogans) to the culturally significant (the preponderance of African Creole languages) to the monstrous (Idi Amin comes from the same clan as Michael), the novel displays the European scars that mark modern African life.
To push his story across national and continental boundaries, Johnson returns to the world of intelligence that helped drive Tree of Smoke. The eras may differ, as do the continents, the geopolitics, the nationalities and the allegiances, but the evocation of the type of stress that inhabits men who choose to live far outside themselves does not. In these foreign lands, people commit foreign deeds—do things they should not do. It takes a toll on Nair, bit by bit. No river guides him, but like Joseph Conrad’s Marlow and Kurtz, Nair struggles with losing himself the longer and deeper he lives in Africa. “Every day, more African,” he says toward the end of the novel.
Like Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, The Laughing Monsters finds a literary master taking on a genre novel, infusing a formula with freshness as he stretches the conventions to serve greater purposes. But even though The Laughing Monsters unfolds as a spy thriller, with peril and uncertainty flung constantly at the characters, no big reveal or plot twist, no grand betrayal or jaw-dropping surprise ever jolts the reader.
The Laughing Monsters of the title is a mountain range near Michael’s home in the Congo, the term coined by a frustrated missionary. (It nicely blends in the local lore of voodoo in the thick forest.) But the Laughing Monsters might well be the two main characters themselves. Nair and Michael don’t happen to be driven by much beyond personal greed, but they have a damn fun time along the way. “Adventure is glorious. I don’t know why people put it down,” Nair says during an argument with Davidia about where his intentions—or suspected intentions—lie.
And so, turning away from any type of boring existence, Nair commits to seeing his adventures through, ultimately to capture, torture and, perhaps, even death.
Or, just maybe, to those riches he chases: “There’s no sense calling it a mess until we see how it all turns out.”
Eric Swedlund is a freelance writer living in Tucson. Find him on Twitter.