The Laughing Monsters

By Denis Johnson

Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 228 pp. $25

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Reviewed by Kevin Grauke


Roland Nair, our narrator, is a captain in the Royal Danish Army, but he travels with an American passport.

He's just returned to Freetown, Sierra Leone, for the first time in 11 years. He's come at the request of his old friend Michael Adriko. However, he's also been directed by his employer, an intelligence division of NATO, to send back regular reports on Michael's activities and plans, which may involve enriched plutonium. Meanwhile, Nair also intends to sell some information on the black market for his own personal profit while he's there.

Michael Adriko is Ugandan (or, to be more precise, a displaced Congolese), but he travels with a Ghanaian passport. Since he and Nair last saw each other seven years earlier while both were in Afghanistan, he's been training internationals from South America and the Middle East at Fort Bragg and Fort Carson in the United States. Most recently, he's been attached to the U.S. Special Forces in the eastern Congo, chasing the Lord's Resistance Army, but now he's "detached," as he puts it. Others consider him AWOL.

Clearly, national citizenship, not to mention loyalty, is a fluid element in The Laughing Monsters.

Denis Johnson, the author, is a predictably unpredictable writer. Although he is primarily thought of as a fiction writer, he is also a poet, a dramatist, and an essayist. From one publication to the next, you never know quite what you'll receive from him. His last work of fiction, the gorgeously stark novella Train Dreams - which was one of the three books nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in 2012, the first year since 1977 that no award was given (it should have won) - was the story of a day laborer living in the American West at the turn of the century.

The novel before that, Nobody Move, was Johnson's version of a noir novel, complete with the requisite gambling debts, a beautiful woman, gunplay, and snappy dialogue that harked back to the era of Chandler and Hammett. And now it's The Laughing Monsters, a thriller that explores the international anxieties of our post-9/11 world as they play themselves out across the unstable nations of Africa.

Though The Laughing Monsters could hardly be more different from its two predecessors, it does call to mind Johnson's acclaimed novel of the Vietnam War era, Tree of Smoke (which won the National Book Award in 2007), as both concern themselves primarily with the clandestine organizations and individuals who exert just as much influence on the outcomes of political and military campaigns as do the visible figures, if not more. Unfortunately, The Laughing Monsters lacks Tree of Smoke's depth and richness. In Tree of Smoke, we find ourselves immersed not only in Vietnam and the 1960s, but also in the language of Johnson's careful sentences. Contrarily, in The Laughing Monsters, we seem merely to be skipping across the surface of a body of water that we know to be deep.

While we occasionally catch glimpses of the descriptive magic that made Johnson's 1992 novel-in-stories, Jesus' Son, a cultish favorite, especially among writers (both actual and manque), what we get too much of in The Laughing Monsters are dubious passages such as this: "I've known Michael for almost twelve years, and all this time I've thought I was infatuated with him, and I was wrong. All the time I've known him I've been infatuated with you. Waiting in infatuation for you to materialize. For him to produce you, conjure you, bring you, fetch you."

The "you" to whom Roland Nair is speaking in this passage is Davidia St. Claire, who is Michael Adriko's fiancée, as well as the daughter of Col. Marcus St. Claire, who was Michael's commanding officer at Fort Carson and in eastern Congo. Needless to say, such a confession on Nair's part complicates things for all involved, but do we really care? Only if we're not muttering at the melodramatic predictability of it all.

Complicating things for Roland Nair, Michael Adriko, and Davidia St. Claire as they move surreptitiously from Sierra Leone to Uganda to the Democratic Republic of the Congo are CIA informants, Interpol undercover agents, the MI6, and Mossad operatives, not to mention the Congolese Army and American Special Forces. And yet, it's difficult to become particularly interested or engaged. This is because Johnson fails to do what we expect a writer of his stature to do, which is to transcend or critique the cliches of the spy-fiction genre, not succumb to them.

Kevin Grauke is the author of "Shadows of Men," a collection of stories. He is associate professor of English at La Salle University.