Cover image for The laughing monsters
Title:
The laughing monsters
Author:
Johnson, Denis, 1949-2017.
Personal Author:
Edition:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014.
Physical Description:
228 pages ; 22 cm
Summary:
"A literary spy thriller set in Africa, where an intelligence agent is caught up in a get rich quick scheme"--
Language:
English
Geographic Term:
ISBN:
9780374280598
Format :
Book

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Summary

Summary

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 fianc#65533;e, 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.


Author Notes

Denis Johnson was born in Munich, Germany on July 1, 1949. He received a bachelor's degree and a master's degree from the University of Iowa. He published his first book of poetry, The Man Among the Seals, at the age of 19. However, addictions to alcohol and drugs derailed him and he was in a psychiatric ward at the age of 21. He was sober by the early 1980s.

Along with writing several volumes of poetry, Johnson wrote short stories for The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, Esquire, Paris Review, and Best American Short Stories. His novels included Angels, Jesus' Son, Resuscitation of a Hanged Man, Already Dead, Nobody Move, Train Dreams, and The Laughing Monsters. He won the National Book Award in 2007 for Tree of Smoke. He also received the Award for Literature from the American Academy of Arts, the Robert Frost Award, and the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction. He died of liver cancer on May 24, 2017 at the age of 67.

(Bowker Author Biography)


Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Johnson's latest offers more proof of the range and impressive talent of one of America's finest novelists, although this is far from his best book. After his brilliant early work, Johnson has in recent years taken on Vietnam (Tree of Smoke, 2007) and the underside (his specialty) of the American West (Train Dreams, 2011). Here we are in contemporary Africa, from Freetown (Sierra Leone) to Uganda, an unsettling continent, with two unsettling but fascinating major characters: Roland Nair, a part-Danish operative for an uncertain international organization, and Michael Adriko, a secretive, charismatic, and frighteningly capable African of otherwise questionable ancestry and motivation. Michael's well-educated American fiancée, Davidia, and a cast of shady characters of diverse lineage contribute to what is very much a twenty-first-century stew, despite its clear similarity to the work of Graham Greene or even Joseph Conrad. As one character says, Since nine-eleven, chasing myths and fairy tales has turned into a serious business. Though what business that is remains murky, Johnson's manipulation of its elements is testimony to his mature power as a writer.--Levine, Mark Copyright 2014 Booklist


Publisher's Weekly Review

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 fiancee, 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. (Nov.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.


Library Journal Review

Starred Review. Roland Nair is a NATO intelligence operative assigned to report on his old comrade-in-arms Michael Adriko after Michael, currently an attache with a Green Beret unit in the Congo, mysteriously summons him to Africa. Arriving in Sierra Leone, Roland soon hooks up with Michael and his fiancee, Davidia St Claire, an American college girl and daughter of Michael's commanding officer. Michael wants Roland to accompany him to his home village to get his clan's blessing to marry Davidia and to participate in scamming Mossad about a flight load of highly enriched uranium rumored to have disappeared in a plane crash many years earlier. Their adventures take them from the Congo and capture by American special forces to the crazed remnants of Michael's clan and finally back to Sierra Leone, where Roland has his own bit of illegal business to transact. VERDICT In a work that's part spy novel and part buddy tale, Johnson aptly locates his portrayal of a shadowy world of complicated relationships and ever-shifting alliances in one of the more broken places on the planet. This is what you might get if you combined Casablanca's cynicism and sense of intrigue with a touch of Heart of Darkness post-9/11. [See Prepub Alert, 5/12/14.]-Lawrence Rungren, Andover, MA (c) Copyright 2014. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.


Excerpts

Excerpts

ONE Eleven years since my last visit and the Freetown airport still a shambles, one of those places where they wheel a staircase to the side of the plane and you step from European climate control immediately into the steam heat of West Africa. The shuttle to the terminal wasn't bad, but not air-conditioned. Inside the building, the usual throng of fools. I studied the shining black faces, but I didn't see Michael's. The PA spoke. Only the vowels came through. I called over the heads of the queue at the desk--"Did I hear a page for Mr. Nair?" "No, sir. No," the man called back. "Mr. Nair?" "Nothing for such a name." A man in a dark suit and necktie said, "Welcome, Mr. Naylor, to Sierra Leone," and helped me through the mess and chatted with me all through customs, which didn't take long, because I'm all carry-on. He helped me outside to a clean white car, a Honda Prelude. "And for me," he said, with a queasy-looking smile, "two hundred dollars." I gave him a couple of one-euro coins. "But, sir," he said, "it's not enough today, sir," and I told him to shut up. The driver of the Honda wanted in the area of a million dollars. I said, "Spensy mohnee!" and his face fell when he saw I knew some Krio. We reached an arrangement in the dozens. He couldn't go any lower because his heart was broken, he told me, by the criminal cost of fuel. At the ferry there was trouble--a woman with a fruit cart, policemen in sky-blue uniforms throwing her goods into the bay while she screamed as if they were drowning her children. It took three cops to drag her aside as our car thumped over the gangway. I got out and went to the rail to catch the wet breeze. On the shore the uniforms crossed their arms over their chests. One of them kicked over the woman's cart, now empty. Back and forth she marched, screaming. The scene grew smaller and smaller as the ferry pulled out into the bay, and I crossed the deck to watch Freetown coming at us, a mass of buildings, many of them crumbling, and all around them a multitude of shadows and muddy rags trudging God knows where, hunched forward over their empty bellies. At the Freetown dock I recognized a man, a skinny old Euro named Horst, standing beside a hired car with his hand shading his eyes against the sunset, taking note of the new arrivals. As our vehicle passed him I slumped in my seat and turned my face away. After we'd passed, I kept an eye on him. He got back in his car without taking on any riders. Horst ... His first name was something like Cosmo but not Cosmo. Leo, Rollo. I couldn't remember. I directed Emil, my driver, to the Papa Leone, as far as I knew the only place to go for steady electric power and a swimming pool. As we pulled under the hotel's awning another car came at us, swerved, recovered, sped past with a sign in its window--SPLENDID DRIVING SCHOOL. This resembled commerce, but I wasn't feeling the New Africa. I locked eyes with a young girl loitering right across the street, selling herself. Poor and dirty, and very pretty. And very young. I asked Emil how many kids he had. He said there were ten, but six of them died. Emil tried to change my mind about the hotel, saying the place had become "very demoted." But inside the electric lights burned, and the spacious lobby smelled clean, or poisonous, depending on your opinion of certain chemicals, and everything looked fine. I'd heard the rebels had shot it out with the authorities in the hallways, but that had been a decade before, just after I'd run away, and I could see they'd patched it all up. The clerk checked me in without a reservation, and then surprised me: "Mr. Nair, a message." Not from Michael--from the management, in purple ink, welcoming me to "the solution to all your problems," and crafted in a very fine hand. It was addressed "To Whom It May Concern." Clipped to it was a slip of paper, instructions for getting online. The desk clerk said the internet was down but not always. Maybe tonight. I had a Nokia phone, and I assumed I could get a local SIM card somewhere, but--the clerk said--not at this hotel. For the moment, I was pretty well cut off. Good enough. I didn't feel ready for Michael Adriko. He was probably here at the Papa in a room right above my head, but for all I knew he hadn't come back to the African continent and he wouldn't, he'd only lured me here in one of his incomprehensible efforts to be funny. * * * The room was small and held that same aroma saying, "All that you fear, we have killed." The bed was all right. On the nightstand, on a saucer, a white candle stood beside a red-and-blue box of matches. I'd flown down from Amsterdam through London Heathrow. I'd lost only an hour and I felt no jet lag, only the need of a little repair. I splashed my face and hung a few things and took my computer gear, in its yellow canvas carrier-kit, downstairs to the poolside. On the way I stopped to make an arrangement with the barman about a double whiskey. Then at a poolside table in an environment of artful plants and rocks, I ordered a sandwich and another drink. A woman alone a couple of tables away pressed her hands together and bowed her face toward her fingertips and smiled. I greeted her: "How d'body?" "D'body no well," she said. "D'body need you." I cracked my laptop and lit the screen. "Not tonight." She didn't look in the least like a whore. She was probably just some woman who'd stopped in here to ease her feet and might as well seize a chance to sell her flesh. Right by the pool, meanwhile, a dance ensemble and percussionist had all found their spots, and the patrons got quiet. Suddenly I could smell the sea. The night sky was black, not a star visible. A crazy drumming started up. Off-line, I wrote to Tina: I'm at the Papa Leone Hotel in Freetown. No sign of our old friend Michael. I'm at the poolside restaurant at night, where there's an African dance group, I think they're from the Kissi Chiefdom (they look like street people), doing a number that involves falling down, lighting things on fire, and banging on wild conga drums. Now one guy's sort of raping a pile of burning sticks with his clothes on and people at nearby tables are throwing money. Now he's rolling all around beside the swimming pool, embracing this sheaf of burning sticks, rolling over and over with it against his chest. It's a bunch of kindling about half his size, all ablaze. I'm only looking for food and drink, I had no idea we'd be entertained by a masochistic pyromaniac. Good Lord, Dear Baby Girl, I'm at an African hotel watching a guy in flames, and I'm a little drunk because I think in West Africa it's best always to be just a tiny bit that way, and the world is soft, and the night is soft, and I'm watching a guy Across the large patio, Horst appeared and threaded himself toward me through the fire and haze. He was a tanned, dapper white-haired white man in a fishing vest with a thousand pockets and usually, I now remembered, tan walking shoes with white shoelaces, but I couldn't tell at the moment. "Roland! It's you! I like the beard." "C'est moi," I admitted. "Did you see me at the quay? I saw you!" He sat down. "The beard gives you gravitas." We bought each other a round. I told the barman, "You're quick," and tipped him a couple of euros. "The staff are efficient enough. Who says this place has gone downhill?" "It's no longer a Sofitel." "Who owns it?" "The president, or one of his close companions." "What's wrong with it?" He pointed at my machine. "You won't get online." I raised my glass to him. "So Horst is still coming around." "I'm still a regular. About six months per year. But this time I've been kept home almost one full year, since last November. Eleven months." The entertainment got too loud. I adjusted my screen and put my fingers on the keyboard. Rude of me. But I hadn't asked him to sit down. "My wife is quite ill," he said, and he paused one second, and added, "terminal," with a sort of pride. Meanwhile, two meters off, by the pool, the performer had set his shirt and pants on fire. To Tina: I saw a couple of US soldiers in weird uniforms at the desk when I checked in. This place is the only one in town that has electricity at night. It costs $145 a day to stay here. Hey--the beard's coming off. It's no camouflage at all. I've already been recognized. With the drumming and the whooping, who could talk? Still, Horst wouldn't let me off. He'd bought a couple of rounds, discussed his wife's disease ... Time for questions. Beginning with Michael. "What? Sorry. What?" "I said to you: Michael is here." "Michael who?" "Come on!" "Michael Adriko?" "Come on!" "Have you seen him? Where?" "He's about." "About where? Shit. Look. Horst. In a land of rumors, how many more do we need?" "I haven't seen him personally." "What would Michael be here for?" "Diamonds. It's that simple." "Diamonds aren't so simple anymore." "Okay, but we're not after simplicity, Roland. We're after adventure. It's good for the soul and the mind and the bank balance." "Diamonds are too risky these days." "You want to smuggle heroin? The drugs racket is terrible. It destroys the youth of a nation. And it's too cheap. A kilo of heroin nets you six thousand dollars US. A kilo of diamonds makes you a king." To Tina I wrote: Show's over now. Everyone appears uninjured. The whole area smells like gasoline. "What do you think?" Horst said. "What I think is, Horst--I think they'll snitch you. They'll sell you diamonds and then they'll snitch you, you know that, because around here it's nothing but snitches." Maybe he took my point, because he stopped his stuff while I wrote to Tina: I'm getting drunk with this asshole who used to be undercover Interpol. He looks far too old now to get paid for anything, but he still sounds like a cop. He calls me Roland like a cop. At any point I might have asked his first name. Elmo? Horst gave up, and we just drank. "Israel," he told me, "has six nuclear-tipped missiles raised from the silos and pointing at Iran. Sometime during the next US election period--boom-boom Teheran. And then it's tit for tat, that's the Muslim way, my friend. Radiation all around." "They were saying that years ago." "You don't want to go home. Within ten years it will be just like here, a bunch of rubble. But our rubble here isn't radioactive. But you won't believe me until you check it with a Geiger counter." The whiskey had washed away his European manner. He was a white-haired, red-faced, jolly elfin cannibal. In the lobby we shook hands and said good night. "Of course they'd like to snitch you," he said. He stood on his toes to get close to my left ear and whisper: "That's why you don't go back the way you came." * * * Later I lay in the dark holding my pocket radio against the very same ear, listening with the other for any sound of the hotel's generator starting. A headache attacked me. I struck a stinky match, lit the candle, opened the window. The batting of insects against the screen got so insistent I had to blow out the flame. The BBC reported that a big storm with 120-kilometer-per-hour winds had torn through the American states of Virginia, West Virginia, and Ohio, and three million homes had suffered an interruption in the flow of their electricity. Here at the Papa Leone, the power came up. The television worked. CCTV, the Chinese cable network, broadcasting in English. I went back to the radio. The phones in Freetown emit that English ring-ring! ring-ring! The caller speaks from the bottom of a well: "Internet working!" Working!--always a bit of a thrill. My machine lay beside me on the bed. I played with the buttons, added a PS to Tina: I drew cash on the travel account--5K US. Credit cards still aren't trusted. Exchange rate in 02 was 250 leones per euro, and the largest bill was 100 leones. You had to carry your cash in a shopping bag, and some used shoeboxes. Now they want dollars. They'll settle for euros. They hate their own money. I sent my e-mails, and then waited, and then lost the internet connection. The BBC show was World Have Your Say , and the subject was boring. The walls ceased humming and all went black as the building's generator powered down, but not before I had a short reply from Tina: Don't go back the way you came. Suddenly I had it. Bruno. Bruno Horst. * * * Around three that morning I woke and dressed in slacks, shirt, and slippers, and followed my Nokia's flashlight down eight flights to the flickering lobby. Nobody around. While I stood in the candle glow among large shadows, the lights came on and the doors to both elevators opened and closed, opened and closed once more. I found the night man asleep behind the desk and sent him out to find the girl I'd seen earlier. I watched while he crossed the street to where she slept on the warm tarmac. He looked one way, then the other, and waited, and finally nudged her with his toe. I took an elevator upstairs, and in a few minutes he brought her up to my room and left her. "You're welcome to use the shower," I said, and her face looked blank. Fifteen years old, Ivoirian, not a word of English, spoke only French. Born in the bush, a navel the size of a walnut, tied by some aunt or older sister in a hut of twigs and mud. She took a shower and came to me naked and wet. I was glad she didn't know English. I could say whatever I wanted to her, and I did. Terrible things. All the things you can't say. Afterward I took her downstairs and got her a taxi, as if she had somewhere to go. I shut the car's door for her and heard the old driver saying even before he put it in gear: "You are a bad woman, you are a whore and a disgrace..." but she couldn't understand any of it. Copyright © 2014 by Denis Johnson Excerpted from The Laughing Monsters by Denis Johnson All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.