The Laughing Monsters
Denis Johnson's New York Times bestseller, The Laughing Monsters, is a high-suspense tale of kaleidoscoping loyalties in the post-9/11 world that shows one of our great novelists at the top of his game.
Roland Nair calls himself Scandinavian but travels on a U.S. passport. After ten years' absence, he returns to Freetown, Sierra Leone, to reunite with his friend Michael Adriko. They once made a lot of money here during the country's civil war, and, curious to see whether good luck will strike twice in the same place, Nair has allowed himself to be drawn back to a region he considers hopeless.
Adriko is an African who styles himself a soldier of fortune and who claims to have served, at various times, the Ghanaian army, the Kuwaiti Emiri Guard, and the American Green Berets. He's probably broke now, but he remains, at thirty-six, as stirred by his own doubtful schemes as he was a decade ago.
Although Nair believes some kind of money-making plan lies at the back of it all, Adriko's stated reason for inviting his friend to Freetown is for Nair to meet Adriko's fiancée, a grad student from Colorado named Davidia. Together the three set out to visit Adriko's clan in the Uganda-Congo borderland—but each of these travelers is keeping secrets from the others. Their journey through a land abandoned by the future leads Nair, Adriko, and Davidia to meet themselves not in a new light, but rather in a new darkness.
Best known for writing about Vietnam (Tree of Smoke won the National Book Award) and America's dispossessed (Jesus' Son; Angels), Johnson sets his new literary spy thriller in Africa. Roland Nair, a Scandinavian with a U.S. passport, returns to the continent where he once made a fortune when his longtime friend Michael Adriko invites him to Freetown, Sierra Leone. The stated reason is to attend Michael's wedding to his newest fianc e, Davidia, but because both Roland and Michael have spent their lives working for various government and military organizations, Roland has reason to suspect that Michael has a hidden agenda. Soon Roland, Michael, and Davidia are traveling deeper and deeper into Africa, their destination a mystical place called Newada Mountain in the Congo: Michael, a war orphan, remembers it from his chaotic, violent childhood. NATO, the U.N., Mossad, and Interpol get wrapped up in his dangerous plan. Much of the novel follows the shifting military and political loyalties in a post-9/11 world, and there is plenty of subterfuge and secrecy, but Johnson's at his best when describing the pervasive, threatening strangeness of Roland's life in Africa. Huge insects, dangerous bogs, something called "Baboon Whiskey," a dining room that only plays Nat King Cole's "Smile" over and over, and even, toward the end, some effective nods to Heart of Darkness all help to make the book's setting its strongest character.
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