Roland Nair reads the scent of his West African hotel room as, “All that you fear, we have killed.” As the narrator of Denis Johnson’s The Laughing Monsters, Nair offers a wry insider’s look at the African underworld of intelligence and those it seeks to know.
We meet Nair as he sets down on the continent for the first time in eleven years, maybe working as a NATO intelligence agent or maybe working for himself. He waits to meet Michael Adriko, friend, fellow soldier, spy, or con man. A man who pops up near conflicts, who pulls stories out of his pocket like others pull weapons.
Upon arrival, Adriko offers up a scam involving the selling of nuclear weapons, but one con doesn’t get very far before another begins, and it’s hard to keep track of who is conning who here. Adriko has a beautiful fiancé, Davidia St. Claire, he’s brought along for a quick romp through Uganda, hoping to marry her in a traditional ceremony in his homeland, a village nestled in mountains nicknamed the Laughing Monsters.
While Adriko sees himself as Ulysses, adrift, returning to make a grand entrance, Nair just struggles not to break his self-imposed drinking limit. He picks up the lingering teenage prostitutes in the evening, and writes messages to lovers during the daytime, pining for internet connection. He may be spying on his good friend Michael Adriko, or may just be keeping an eye on him. Keeping him out of trouble. Pick an option. Spin a bottle. Things are unclear from the start. And really, Nair just seems along for the wild, reckless ride.
And what a ride it turns out to be–things go from bad to worse very quickly in a war zone, and the war zones are plentiful here. There’s a hit-and-run, because you can’t just really stop when speeding through Uganda. The party of three unfortunately does stop in a village which gets raided by an army of some kind, its women raped, its men and children slaughtered as they flee. There’s a brief stay in a detention center. A priestess who lives in a tree. Dreams of riches on isolated beaches, blocks of gold and nuggets of uranium, talk of millions of dollars. Countless bars and alcoholic beverages named after wildlife.
Johnson’s strength has always been in telling stories of the futile, the out-of-luck and stuck, figuratively or otherwise. Adriko and Nair are all of these, or maybe they aren’t, depending on which of their lies you choose to believe. They are entertainers, survivors, men capable of performing in any situation but never being pinned down. Being in the business of dishonesty requires that maybe they’ve muddled their own intentions, and there’s no room for truth here. Johnson’s writing is startling, awkward, noticeable and groaning, big like an African landscape, big like a tall tale. Pick it up, read a few pages, you’ll get sucked in, and you won’t regret it.