The Laughing Monsters
Picaresque: “of or relating to an episodic style of fiction dealing with the adventures of a rough and dishonest but appealing hero.” THE LAUGHING MONSTERS by Denis Johnson is a wonderful example, in the tradition of the spy novel. Just don’t expect a linear, easily followed plot.
We drop into Sierra Leone along with our narrator, Roland Nair, a jaded thirty-something American resident of Denmark. It’s not clear why he’s here, but it’s obvious he’s been here before, brooking no crap from the locals who try to scam the white guy. He checks into the Papa Leone in Freetown, a hotel he knows from his last trip 10 years before. “The room was small and held that same aroma saying, ‘All that you fear, we have killed.’” Before page 15 he has gotten drunk with another “Euro” he remembers as an undercover Interpol agent, composed an email missive to his girlfriend, Tina, back in Amsterdam, and summoned a young Ivoirian whore to his room. “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.”
"THE LAUGHING MONSTERS is a truly delightful picaresque, propelling us through an unpredictable landscape with deft dialogue and arresting, wry description."
Nair is in Africa on his own private shady business but reports periodically to NIIA (NATO Intelligence Interoperability Architecture) until he becomes convinced they’ve sent him blind down into a high-stakes nuclear deal that likely could get him killed. That is, if his old buddy Michael Adriko doesn’t get him killed first. “In the middle of the lobby stood a figure in a two-piece jogging suit of royal purple velour, a large man with a bald, chocolate, bullet-shaped head, which he wagged from side to side as he blew his nose loudly and violently into a white hand towel. People were either staring or making sure they didn’t.” Michael has a beautiful American fiance named Davidia St. Claire and a get-rich scheme involving the sale of some non-existent radioactive material. But first they must travel to Uganda, back to Michael’s home near the Happy Mountains, to have a proper African wedding.
As they careen around in dicey airplanes and SUVs, the interplay among these three is luscious, and the dry, inventive narration a constant delight. “One of my heads said to the other, He meant to search your things, and the other head said, Don’t get jumpy, people make mistakes, and the other one said, Either way, my friend, they’ve got you talking to yourself.” Nair falls in love with Davidia and attempts to convince her to flee with him, but she’s not buying --- until a certain incident on a dark road exposes a side of Michael’s character with which she can’t come to terms.
The night they finally reach Michael’s birthplace, he claims he can see the hills of his childhood, the Happy Mountains, a range that a missionary called The Laughing Monsters. “He cut the headlamps, and in the blackness quite vividly I perceived how an English missionary like James Hannington might have stood up to his buttocks in this sludge and wept, and heard the mountains laughing.” Michael’s homecoming does not meet his expectations. A crazy, evil queen is in charge, and the Congolese army is in town. Africa, with all its conundrums and poverty, is very much a character in this book. “I’ve come back because I love the mess,” confesses Nair. “Anarchy. Madness. Things falling apart. Michael only makes my excuse for returning.”
To try and describe the twists and turns of the plot, the crossings and double crossings, would spoil the fun. I highly recommend reading it yourself. THE LAUGHING MONSTERS is a truly delightful picaresque, propelling us through an unpredictable landscape with deft dialogue and arresting, wry description.
Reviewed by Eileen Zimmerman Nicol on November 21, 2014