Book review: The Laughing Monsters

Denis Johnson Harvill & Secker, €15.99; ebook, €10.99
ROLAND Nair, a former NATO spy apparently reactivated, arrives in Freetown, the sweltering, crumbling capital of Sierra Leone, to meet a Ghanaian mercenary, Michael Adriko, who is an old adventuring comrade. 

They have not spoken in a decade, but the meeting is to consider a plan that will make them rich as kings.

The two have a history involving diamonds, but this time the subject is Congolese gold.

But that’s just a starting point, and even something of a cover, while each works separate schemes.

Adriko intends a scam trade with Mossad for nuclear weapons. Nair, who in monitoring his friend gets to cash the cheques of a higher paymaster, is also collecting information on the whereabouts of US military fibre-optics and intelligence safe houses across Africa.

To complicate matters, Adriko is accompanied by his fiancée, a beautiful, light-skinned American, Davidia St Claire, whom he plans to marry as soon as they reach his long-forgotten home village on the Uganda-Congo border. Nair is bewitched by St Claire.

Denis Johnson is much-admired by other writers, and always seems on the brink of some major breakthrough. Jesus’ Son, his 1992 collection of linked short stories, is frequently acclaimed as some of the finest American writing of the past 30 years, and his 2007 Vietnam War novel, Tree of Smoke, won the National Book Award and was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize (as indeed was his 2011 novella, Train Dreams).

Never one to confine himself by theme or subject, The Laughing Monsters is a tale of intrigue and espionage that takes us to deepest and most treacherous Africa, a continent brutalised by the West and ripe now with moral, social and political ambiguity, misdirection and menace.

The sense of identity is vague: Nair is half-Danish, travelling on a US passport; Adriko a Ghanaian who’s been running with — and possibly from — American special forces; and Davidia, seemingly straightforward and vacuous, could be anyone, working any kind of game.

As well as a novelist of impressive scope, Johnson is an accomplished poet, and the visceral writing on relentless display here is exactly what his readers have come to expect: the hard, honed sentences expressing a kind of heightened reality that leads with a vicious edge.

The pacing is often breathtakingly fast, driven by flurries of machine-gun dialogue, and the plot is scatter-shot and purposefully obscure, leaving as many questions as answers.

But it is the characterisations that elevate this book above the ordinary. Nair and Adriko — particularly the latter — are captivating creations, striking in their complexity, amoral in their behaviour and yet, even in their most monstrous moments (of which there is no shortage), utterly human.

The Laughing Monsters takes its title from a Congolese mountain range named by a 19th century missionary, but has an obvious analogy with the novel’s two leading men. The book will probably, in time, come to be considered one of Johnson’s minor works.

The glimpse of Africa that it presents is not particularly new. Others have walked this way before, from Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene and Paul Bowles through to Norman Rush, VS Naipaul and John le Carre, with novels that have not only matched, but bettered, Johnson’s sense of authenticity.

Where The Laughing Monsters does succeed is as a commentary on colonialism, the western powers’ exploitation and then casual abandonment of a land and its people.

And, in the wake of 9/11, the increased obsession with with intelligence hoarding. Not a masterpiece, then, but certainly a worthwhile read.


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