I’m hesitant to write a less than glowing review of Denis Johnson’s The Laughing Monsters because I’m such an admirer of much of his other work. And the novel begins in a way that only raised my expectations. The fantastic dialogue—so cryptic and quippy and spot-on, revealing levels of tacit understanding between the speakers while leaving the reader both wondering and hurrying to catch up—is perfect for this fictional world of renegade turncoat spies and other outcasts that form an international class of interloping social detritus.
This dialogue along with the suggestive—yet elusive—description of place enhances the strange yet very specific feel of post-civil war West Africa, where the story begins, a part of that huge and troubled continent that seems to be permanently awash in the residues of madness and poverty and the limitless tragedies these two incorrigible factors always spawn.
Having lived next door in Liberia right before all hell broke loose soon after the rigged elections of 1985 much of what Johnson describes is familiar to me. I used to dream of going back to Monrovia, dark and dangerous dreams imbued with the threat of chaos.
In Johnson’s novel Roland Nair—whose name alone conjures up Warren Zevon’s Headless Thompson Gunner, the archetypal white mercenary who ends up haunting all civil conflicts everywhere—is supposed to be Danish (just as Zevon’s character was Norwegian) even though he travels on an American passport. So from the very beginning nothing is certain, least of all anyone’s loyalty to anyone else.
Nair gets sent to Freetown by the NIIA (a fictional NATO intelligence agency) with the purpose of finding out what his old friend Michael Adriko is up to. Nair allows Adriko (with whom he served in some unclarified capacity in Afghanistan) to seduce him with his scheme to sell phony processed uranium, as well as his more mundane plans to marry a girl from Colorado—his former commanding officer’s daughter—in his native village, somewhere in the mountainous region of the Uganda-Congo border.
At the same time that Nair is betraying Adriko by not only keeping tabs on him—while reporting none of what he has discovered about Adriko to his bosses in Brussels—he is also falling in love with Adriko’s fiancée and betraying the NIIA by arranging to sell classified information to anyone willing to buy it.
So much for the premise of the story which pretty much ends where it began.
Long before that though the plot—what there is of plot in this study not so much of character, but of characters—derails. The fourth and final part of the book relates the captivity, release and breakdown of these characters, none of which can withstand much serious scrutiny. In some ways the book boils down—as far as what it’s supposed to really be about—to questions of loyalty and commitment. When Nair and Adriko reconnect somewhere in the Newada Mountains Adriko assures Nair that he was never involved with Tina, the lover Nair left behind in Europe:
“And I was never with Tina. Even if I was with her before you came along, I would have told you.”
“I believe you. I was crazy. And there’s something I want to say as well. Are you listening?”
“I hear you.”
I sat up and looked straight at him and tried hard to make him believe this—because it’s true—“I’d never grass a friend. I might try and steal his girl and leave him to drown in shit while—well, while running off with his girl. But I’m not a snitch. Never.”
When this same scene—in essence at least—was practically repeated a few pages later, and so close to the end of the book, it became apparent that Johnson was trying to insist upon a ‘meaning’ for his story that, although laid out from the beginning, the story itself was not that terribly concerned about. Once they do—spoiler alert!—make it back to Freetown on time to meet the buyers of Nair’s pilfered intelligence, Adriko says, “How much will you profit, Nair, how much money?”
“One hundred K US. That’s the price for betraying absolutely everyone.”
“But, Nair—you didn’t betray me.”
“Not quite. Not yet.”
“The slate is clean between us.”
“I tried to steal your girl.”
“I take it as a compliment.”
And so, in a sense, no harm was done.
The story finishes inconclusively, leaving in the air the prospect of another Nair-Adriko adventure, somewhere in the world. The problem is, the story’s playfully sardonic treatment of everyone and all things—while entertaining—leaves the reader wondering not so much what any of this matters, but rather, who cares?
p.s. The untimely early death of Denis Johnson on the 24th of May of this year makes me feel even worse about writing a less than glowing review of one of his books. I repeat: this is because I am such an admirer of so much of his work, the almost epic Tree of Smoke and the equally large-in-scope novella Train Dreams, even the curious and ghostly Resuscitation of a Hanged Man and Johnson’s first novel, Angels, which suggested the potential and nature and inclinations of this fantastic writer, as well as some of the stories in Jesus’s Son.
But some of the works that great writers produce are better than others, and even the greatest writers have produced less than fully satisfactory works. And a review like this one is nothing more than my own humble assessment and opinion, with which anyone is free to differ.