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"The Laughing Monsters" by Denis Johnson

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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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