By Denis Johnson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 228 pp. $25
In an interview in the New Yorker, Denis Johnson described his new novel, “The Laughing Monsters,” as a “literary thriller.” The book’s flap copy calls it “a high-suspense tale of kaleidoscoping loyalties in the post-9/11 world.”
A cursory plot summary certainly suggests an intricate genre piece, wound tight and ticking like a time bomb. But Johnson has no intention of satisfying a reader’s formulaic expectations — no more than his central character, Roland Nair, a NATO intelligence agent, intends to come clean about his identity, his agenda and his conflicting disloyalties.
A Dane traveling on a U.S. passport, Nair returns to Freetown, Sierra Leone, where he reconnects with Michael Adriko, a soldier of fortune who carries a Ghanaian passport, although national borders, like ethical concerns, mean little to him.
A decade earlier, he and Nair turned a tidy profit during Sierra Leone’s civil war, and now they have a dizzy hall-of-mirrors plan to make another killing while pursuing frolics of their own. “Since nine-eleven, chasing myths and fairy tales has turned into a serious business,” Adriko says. “An industry. A lucrative one.”
Nair reluctantly agrees to Adriko’s scheme to pretend to sell nuclear weapons material to Mossad frontmen, but he also has an assignment to betray Adriko. At the same time, he’s hawking “Maps of the US military fiber-optics cables throughout seven West African countries” and “the GPS coordinates for twelve NIIA Technology Safe Houses.”
Despite the danger to his Amsterdam-based girlfriend, Nair involves her in this duplicity as casually as he picks up and discards underage prostitutes. Adriko shows a similar penchant for mixing the professional and personal, and brings along a beautiful American woman, Davidia St. Claire, whom he vows to marry in his native village in the Happy Mountains, dubbed by a disgruntled missionary the Laughing Monsters.
But as Johnson demonstrated in the National Book Award-winning “Tree of Smoke”and “Train Dreams,” a 2012 Pulitzer Prize finalist for fiction, he has an unerring instinct for dramatizing the way that life invariably plays tricks on the innocent and guilty alike. His new novel, like his previous fiction, is not so much a deconstruction as an obliteration of a genre. “The Laughing Monsters” is to the conventional thriller what Eugene Ionesco’s “The Bald Soprano” was to the traditional comedy of manners.
In a methodical fashion, Johnson arranges set pieces such as a showdown scene with Israeli intelligence agents and an interrogation verging on torture. But in every instance, he turns things upside down. The interrogation resembles stand-up comedy rather than Abu Ghraib. When the men from Mossad reveal themselves to be rip-off artists, Nair, unlike a stock action hero, is paralyzed by fear. Anyone anticipating a moral, an expression of patriotism, a meliorative impulse, a political solution to Africa’s manifold problems or a neat tying up of plot lines will be disappointed.
Similar disappointment awaits sticklers for continuity and narrative consistency. Starting off in the first person, the story sometimes turns into an epistolary novel, with e-mails instead of letters. Then it devolves into a jailhouse journal, loosely addressed to Nair’s girlfriend and Davidia, neither of whom is in a position to read it or respond.
And yet such is the power of Johnson’s prose and the acuity of his eye that he manages to convey a more convincing portrait of amoral intelligence agents and the havoc they wreak than almost any journalistic account of Third World skullduggery.
As Nair, Adriko and Davidia hurtle down a dirt road in the Congo, a woman balancing a basin on her head steps into their path and is plowed under. Davidia shouts “ ‘Go back!’ ” But Nair is resigned to the collateral damage. “We wouldn’t go back,” he thinks, “we couldn’t — not in Africa, this hard, hard land where nobody could help the poor woman flopped probably dead in the road and where running away from this was not a mistake. The mistake was looking back at her in the first place.”
Critics have commented that Johnson’s vision of reality resembles a drug-induced nightmare. But anyone who remembers the reporting he did for Esquire about the civil war in Liberia will recognize how deeply “The Laughing Monsters” draws on harrowing personal experience. In this sense, Johnson’s seemingly surrealistic fiction abides by Jean-Paul Sartre’s stricture that “the function of the writer is to act in such a way that nobody can be ignorant of the world and that nobody may say that he is innocent of what it is all about.”
Mewshaw’s 20th book, “Sympathy for the Devil: Four Decades of Friendship with Gore Vidal,” will be published in January.
THE LAUGHING MONSTERS
Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
228 pp. $25