By Denis Johnson - The Laughing Monsters: A Novel (2014-11-19) [Hardcover]

by Denis Johnson

Hardcover, 2014

Call number





Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2014)


"A literary spy thriller set in Africa, where an intelligence agent is caught up in a get rich quick scheme"--

Media reviews

“The Laughing Monsters” is a minor work — there’s no rocketing prose or conceptual jumping of lanes. Cheerfully nihilistic, it’s a buddy book dependent for much of its situation on several of Johnson’s early journalistic pieces about Liberia and Charles Taylor and the “atmosphere of happy horror” pervasive at the time. The whores and martinis and low-rent espionage seem no more than familiarly nostalgic, as does a time pre-Ebola. Africa is a hard land and it’s getting even harder.

User reviews

LibraryThing member tututhefirst
I found this book to be ugly, and physchologically draining. I only read it because somehow it made the long list of books nominated for the 2015 Maine Readers Choice Award. The subject matter was distasteful, the characters amoral, and the whole reading experience one I hope I don't have to repeat too soon. Denis Johnson is supposed to be a good author, but he's not going on to my list of favorites if this cock-of-road, devil may care, how many people can we kill/deceive/cheat is his normal genre. It got 1 1/2 stars because at least he can write in sentences.… (more)
LibraryThing member ozzer
Johnson applies his skill with dialogue to expound on his jaded view of the world post 9-11. “We talked about how the world has changed since the Twin Towers went down. I think you could easily say the part that’s changed the most is the world of intelligence, security, and defense.” “I can’t deny it. Since nine-eleven, chasing myths and fairy tales has turned into a serious business. An industry. A lucrative one.” “Information was an onion, to be pealed back in layers.” “All that you fear, we have killed.”
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.
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LibraryThing member Hagelstein
Roland Nair, a Danish-American military officer assigned to NATO, returns to Sierra Leone after a decade away. He’s meeting Michael Adriko, an old African friend, but he’s also spying on Adriko. They have a scam going involving the sale of possible fissionable material to criminals that may be representatives of the Mossad. Adriko’s stunning American fiancée, Davidia, is also along for the trip. Africa is dangerous, and so are the people they deal with, not “teddy bears hugging marshmallows.”

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.
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LibraryThing member eachurch
One of Johnson's lighter works. 'Train Dreams' is one of my favorite books. 'The Laughing Monsters' didn't come close to it in terms of writing or story. It was an entertaining romp, but a little hard to take seriously.
LibraryThing member St.CroixSue
Johnson is an acclaimed writer, but the grim subject matter made this a challenging book. The casual and random violence of Africa, along with the disloyal and unfaithful characters overwhelmed me as a reader. This is a dark piece without a glimmer of light.
LibraryThing member sleahey
Who's on whose side for what spy mission? It's all rather confusing and suspenseful and political, but really it's about friendship and romance, loyalty and betrayal in contemporary Africa. Michael and Nair are adventure junkies, constantly scheming as they move around Africa as quickly as the reader can turn the pages. Johnson's writing raises this book above the status of thriller, although it's fine that way too.… (more)
LibraryThing member smik
Perhaps this book was just too far out of my comfort zone, but I have to admit that I didn't finish it. According to my Kindle I got to 90%, but that's when I decided I couldn't go any further. I no longer knew what was going on. In fact, it was worse than that. I no longer cared.

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.… (more)
LibraryThing member Vicki_Weisfeld
The Laughing Monsters (2014) is an antic novel that focuses on two friends—one white, one black—whose wild adventure starts in pre-Ebola Freetown, Sierra Leone, and unravels across Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Ghana. Their goal is to make a financial killing doing something—selling government secrets, peddling fake uranium—then retire to a life on the beach.
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.”
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LibraryThing member eenerd
Good writing but I just couldn't stay interested.
LibraryThing member LukeS
Denis Johnson obviously has a thing for espionage as it’s supposedly practiced today. Although it’s set a few decades in the past, Tree of Smoke centered on the gathering, use, and misuse of intelligence, in particular military intelligence. In The Laughing Monsters we get spies plying their trade again, although in this case the misbehavior seems to drown out the good behavior. The Laughing Monsters features Denis Johnson’s unvarnished prose in the service of a seemingly random plot - there’s no reason a spy caper should follow logic, is there? - and a venal, unstable, impossible-to-predict first person narrator. It’s engaging as hell.

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.
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LibraryThing member nivramkoorb
Having read a couple of Denis Johnson's novels including his national book award winner "Tree of Smoke", I looked forward to his new book. The best I can say it that is was okay. It did a good job of portraying what Africa is probably like, but if it was a character study it did not work because it did not delve too deeply into the characters and if it was plot driven that there was not much of a plot. The ending was too pat. Good writing but if you are going to read Denis Johnson, then read "Tree of Smoke".… (more)
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