LitStack Review: The Laughing Monsters by Denis Johnson

by Sharon Browning
The Laughing MonstersThe Laughing Monsters
Denis Johnson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Release Date:  November 4, 2014

If you feel a bit over-saturated with holiday cheer, and need something to counterbalance the saccharine sweetness of the last few days, have I got just the book for you!  It’s not a horrid book, not in the least, nor graphically brutal nor bereft of humanity – at least not overtly so.  But it is a book where horrid things happen, and there is brutality, and at times humanity seems like a distant notion when held up against profit and power.  But gosh, is it well written and it pulls you in even as you try to keep your distance.

Perhaps the nicest unintended benefit to reading The Laughing Monsters by Denis Johnson?  My dull, boring life is looking mighty nice right about now.

It’s been a while since the world was turned upside down by 9/11, and Roland Nair has returned to Africa to find his friend Michael Adriko.  Nair (he dislikes being called “Roland”) is Scandinavian by birth, American by passport, and he might be working undercover  for the government, or NATO, or the secret police, he might be involved with Interpol, and he might be double-crossing all of them.  But he is now in Africa, specifically Freetown, Sierra Leone, to find a man who does not necessarily want to be found, depending on who’s looking:  Michael Adriko, a Ghanaian national, who years earlier had been a partner of Nair’s in a money making scheme that had left them both rich.  For a while.

But Michael has invited Nair back to Africa (or has he?) because he is getting married, to a gorgeous American grad student of high pedigree Colorado, Davidia.  Michael wants to take Davidia back to his village – his displaced village – and have a traditional wedding with his family, those who are left, those he can find.  But this is not as simple as it seems, especially since there are a few (more than a few) detours along the way. These detours include such seemingly random (and yet one gets the impression, completely expected and planned) incidents as international espionage, a fair amount of high stakes grifting, a desperate need to throw mercenaries off their tails, sparring with hostile natives, circumventing territorial governmental agents and surviving shifting loyalties, in a desperate and stunted landscape where isolation and environment will kill just as surely as guns and treachery.

The bus’s woman conductor stood in the aisle and addressed us, giving us her name and town and the bowing her head to pray out loud for one full minute in the hope this journey wouldn’t kill us all.  She invited everyone to turn to the next passenger and wish him or her the same thing, and we did, fare ye well, may this journey not be your last, although one of these journeys, surely, will send us – or whatever parts of us can be collected afterward – to the grave.

This is a book where none of the characters are stable, where their motives and motivations are constantly being called into question, and there is virtually no soul searching or efforts to “do the right thing”.  There are no heroes, everyone and everything is villainous to some degree.  Collateral damage is not only a non-issue, it’s a way of life.

It’s gripping, high stakes story telling.  From covert activities at a highly advanced level to remote tribal conflict, life for Nair not only has no safety net, but also no cushion:  he constantly is in motion, constantly adapting to the changing set of circumstances, constantly gripping life by the hair to keep the howling maelstrom from throwing him into the abyss or ripping him limb from limb.  His mindset is not one that I could ever imagine or hope to understand, but it’s intense and it is compelling; why anyone would put himself in the situations that Nair refuses to walk away from is beyond me, and it’s thrilling in a very morbid and vital way.

The Laughing Monsters is definitely a dark, bleak book, one that will have you glad to have experienced but also glad to be able to close at the end and know that it is a story far removed from your own.

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