Roland Nair returns to Freetown to reunite with his friend Michael Adriko to meet Adriko's fiancee, Davidia. Together the three set out to visit Adriko's clan in the Uganda-Congo borderland. Nair gets mired in betrayal in a landscape of violence as he travels with them, gets smuggled into a war zone, kidnapped by the Congo Army, and terrorized by a self-proclaimed god ruling over a dying village. Their journey leads the three to meet themselves not in a new light, but rather in a new darkness.
Johnson sets the novel in contemporary Africa--Sierra Leone, Uganda, and Congo, developing a vaguely threatening mood with self-interested spies and con men. The narrator is Nair, a man with a love for adventure and few morals. “I’ve come back because I love the mess. Anarchy. Madness. Things fall apart. Michael only makes my excuse for returning.” His friend is Michael Adriko, a none-too-bright con man who has deserted the military-- “Desertion is a coin. You turn it over and it’s loyalty”--to get married to his commander’s daughter and to pursue a hair-brained get rich scheme—“There’s no such thing as courage. It’s a question of training.” Johnson evokes all of the elements that tend to terrify us, including corruption of the environment (U-235), corporate greed (Tenex Corporation) and especially the loss of our heritage and innocence (Newada) in what is essentially a pessimistic view of our future.
Johnson describes Africa, “this land of chaos, despair” in intriguing terms. The people are more cookie-cutter. The story is loose, but has a heftier feel than it could due to Johnson’s mastery of his material.
I know others who would not bother to write about a DNF, but for a while there, I thought it had some good things going for it. I thought I knew what the central characters were trying to do, although I must admit to some confusing moments. I thought the description of the squalid state of things in Sierra Leone and the Congo rang true, but then I simply didn't recognise the protagonists as the book drew to the end.
Roland Nair, the book’s narrator, is a Scandinavian/American/NATO spook and an admitted coward in a land where courage needs to come in more than the liquid form he prefers. His long-time friend, handsome Michael Adriko, a son of Uganda, teeters on the edge of a major breakdown. Adriko’s undeniable courage and latent lethality is a good way to get both men into trouble. And does. But is Nair working with Adriko or against him?
Also along for the ride is Michael’s fifth fiancée, Davidia, daughter of a U.S. military commander running a secret post somewhere in the Congo. Davidia is beautiful—men’s “gazes followed behind her as if she swept them along with her hands,” and both Nair and Adriko want her. She’s patiently trying to make the best of their low-budget accommodations and travel arrangements, but even she reaches her limit and, anyway, her father wants her back.
Johnson, who won the National Book Award for his 2007 novel about Vietnam, Tree of Smoke, effectively evokes the fractured spirit of the place—the do-si-do-ing for advantage of the operatives loosely connected with various spy agencies with whom they negotiate, the tunnel vision of the American military personnel, the sinister and sometimes overtly threatening village residents they encounter when they’re far from transportation and cell phone coverage.
The author presents his characters with precision and a fine appreciation for absurdity. Here’s how Nair describes one of Michael’s reckless schemes: “As [Michael] expressed these ideas he followed them with his eyes, watching them gallop away to the place where they made sense.”
Johnson is equally good at conveying the sensory-overload of the African environment: not only the mind-baking heat and the mud and the tainted water, but the ramshackle villages and spluttering vehicles, the barmen and the prostitutes. Nair plunges into political incorrectness with an unforgettable description of an African prostitute “wearing a curly blonde wig, like a chocolate-covered Marilyn Monroe.”
I really enjoyed the first 175 pages or so of this 228-page book, though in the final section, the gods of chaos and Really Bad Hangovers hijacked the narrative, and I felt I was losing the thread. On the whole, it is as described by New York Times critic Joy Williams, “cheerfully nihilistic” as it lays bare the “giddy trickle-down of global exploitation and hubris—the farcical exploits of cold dudes in a hard land.”
The height of Mr. Johnson’s powers comes into play here: we accompany a presumably competent narrator through a halting, lurching reality, some of it built on a seeming sense, the rest on lunatic delusion, or maybe hallucination. This presentation challenges the reader to keep her balance as best she can, because she’s going to need it to weather the storms of apparent betrayal, incarceration, near-death from thirst, and the constant - and not always successful - running from the authorities.
On the face of the narrative, we have Nair, a captain in the Danish army and spy for an arm of NATO. In Sierra Leone he meets up with a friend, a black man, Michael Adriko, from an African tribe, who has lived in the US for some time. Michael is “attached” as a trainer to the US Army but might be AWOL. Michael has cooked up a harebrained scheme to sting some very shady characters out of millions by selling them fake enriched uranium. Nair has an equally underhanded scheme afoot when the two team up. While trailing along with him, Nair helps Micheal defy death in a couple of frightening scrapes, while trying to steal his fiancée, who for some reason is with Michael in Africa.
Yes, it’s a screwy plot, delightfully so; rather simple on the surface, but full of convolutions underneath. I found the most entertaining prose written in the dialog. Nair’s interrogation by an American intelligence official is supreme. I wanted to put in a sample, but there’s just too much. The verbal sparring between the spy and the counterspy, often in sentences of three or fewer words, is priceless. I laughed, I reread it, and I laughed all over again. Conversations among Nair, Michael, and the fiancée Davidia, are almost as funny.
The Laughing Monsters is a slim, entertaining spy caper, where spies use their knowledge and skills to reach for ill-gotten gains. We don’t know for most of the book whether Nair and Michael are friends or enemies. There is certainly no giveaway or hint of how the thing will turn out, so no spoilers here, either.
The monsters of the title are many: there is a mountain range called that, the ubiquitous armed bands of looters and rapists that populate parts of Africa are certainly monsters, and the U.S., which displays its monstrousness through military assets and its use of law for convenience. I compare this to Nobody Move, Johnson’s celebrated short piece, for its focus on the moral shadows, for its brand of action, and for its injection of delightful dialog.