If you return to Denis Johnson’s earlier masterpiece, this is what you encounter on the cover of the paperback: “Tree of Smoke is the story of William ‘Skip’ Sands, CIA—engaged in Psychological Operations against the Vietcong—and the disasters that befall him. It is also the story of the Houston brothers, Bill and James, young men who drift out of the Arizona desert and into a war where the line between disinformation and delusion has blurred away.” Although the territory and the time has changed (and obviously the names of the characters), that’s not such a bad description of Johnson’s newest novel, The Laughing Monsters, a lesser work only because of its more limited scope.
Still, there’s a compelling reason for the appeal of the current novel: our country’s frenzied determination to fight dirty, ever since 9/11, when we discovered that we had let spying lapse into something much more gentlemanly after the end of the Cold War. As the main character says to the fiancée of the man he’s pursuing, “We talk about how the world has changed since the Twin Towers went down. I think you could easily say the part that’s changed the most is the world of intelligence, security, and defense. The world powers are dumping their coffers into an expanded version of the old Great Game. The money’s simply without limit, and plenty of it goes for snitching and spying. In that field, there’s no recession.” Later he will add, “Since nine-eleven, chasing myths and fairy tales has turned into serious business. An industry. A lucrative one.”
Unfortunately, that means hiring rather sleazy people, working with men you wouldn’t want to bring home to meet your daughter. That’s pretty much the case with Roland Nair and Michael Adriko, the two main characters in Johnson’s narrative. Nair has a U.S. passport, but claims to be Scandinavian; Adriko’s past is more diffused—or so he claims—Ghana, Kuwait, USA, though by birth he’s from an area of Africa that straddles Uganda and Congo. The two men worked together ten years earlier and are united in Sierra Leone where both made considerable profit during the country’s Civil War. Spies or soldiers for hire is perhaps the more accurate description for both men.
There’s a third character central to the story, an attractive young woman named Davidia St. Claire—from Colorado of all places—who is Adriko’s fiancée. The two of them have been traipsing around Africa together with the somewhat ludicrous objective of getting to Adriko’s people on the border between Congo and Uganda, where Adriko says they’ll get married. Although initially it looks as if Nair and Adriko are planning to work together again in West Africa, it doesn’t take long before we realize that Nair is spying on his old friend, who may be in some shady business involving uranium.
Johnson is superb at detailing the nitty-gritty (especially the gritty) aspects of daily life on the African continent. He knows his stuff. His attention to detail is impressive: street noise; the constant rain; the same 45 minute tape playing over and over in a bar; run-down hotels that cost way too much; the constantly interrupted electricity; bored prostitutes; a sign on a public structure (DO NOT URINE ON THIS WALL)—much of this in edgy situations. Added to the list are the grungy expats hopeful of making a quick fortune on the continent. One of my favorite moments in the story is Nair’s observation of a white guy, wearing a “thick gold necklace,” which on closer examination has “tainted his neck’s flesh with a greenish collar.” The sad thing is that these guys can still be spotted all over the continent, pursuing their pipe dreams of getting rich, which mostly means taking advantage of Africans.
The narrative jumps from West to East Africa; all three of the main characters find themselves captive in a number of situations involving African soldiers, whose ethics are little better than Nair’s and Adriko’s; there are chase scenes, near-death experiences, and a final separation of the main characters that results in Nair having to fend for himself. The story suddenly shifts to Nair’s journal entries and email messages back to his handlers in Europe, written in medias res, when Nair isn’t even certain if he will survive. That’s when I had a problem with credibility, a little like those scenes in early epistolary novels when you ask yourself how the heroine (fearing she will be seduced by her employer) can keep writing about the events threatening her.
I love Denis Johnson’s earlier work; I found much of The Laughing Monsters disturbingly revealing about the people we employ to do our dirty work—especially their attitude toward the people who hire them (“You just tickle them in their terrorism bone, and they ejaculate all kinds of money. If you mention the name of one of the Muslim Most Wanted—boom, they put on a circus for you.”) I hope this is not the way it actually is, but I fear it is.
Johnson is in top form.
Denis Johnson: The Laughing Monsters
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 228 pp,, $25
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email: email@example.com