11/11/2014 11:03 am ET Updated Nov 14, 2014

The Book We're Talking About: 'The Laughing Monsters' By Denis Johnson

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

The Laughing Monsters
by Denis Johnson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25.00
Published Nov. 4, 2014

The Book We're Talking About is a weekly review combining plot description and analysis with fun tidbits about the book.

What we think:

In his compact but profound prose, Johnson digs into the corruption found in the hearts of men, but a dismissive treatment of women and race narrows the outlook.

After publishing a slick noir thriller, in 2009, and the quiet interlude that was the standalone publication of his elegiac novella Train Dreams, in 2011, Denis Johnson’s latest novel returns to the smoky trenches of foreign battlegrounds. While 2007’s Tree of Smoke was set in Vietnam during the war, The Laughing Monsters takes place in contemporary Africa, winding from West to East Africa and back as its central three characters seek fortune -- or something they don’t dare name -- across the continent.

Roland Nair, a Danish and American adventurer, has been summoned to Freetown, Sierra Leone by his old compatriot Michael Adriko, an African with Ugandan roots and ties to militaries all over the world. Years before, the two capitalized on the region’s civil unrest to make their fortunes, and Nair senses Adriko has another scheme for a payday in mind.

But when Adriko shows up, he has a lovely young fiancée, Davidia St. Claire, in tow, and insists the sole purpose of their gathering is to travel to Uganda to seek his clan and hold his wedding to Davidia with their blessing. Frustrated, but with ulterior motives of his own driving him onward, Nair journeys with them across Africa, from Sierra Leone to the ominous border territories between the Congo and Uganda.

Nair’s narration, first directly to the reader, eventually to his girlfriend Tina, and then to Davidia and Tina, reveals his own mixed motives and betrayals, large and small -- though with less intimacy than might be expected, given the first-person point of view. Nair narrates his actions with apparent honesty, but withholds a great deal from his readers nonetheless.

Adriko, of course, has his own secrets -- and a far worse poker face than Nair, all the better for signalling his hidden agenda to the audience. As the trio travels toward Uganda, and further into dangerous territory, he clings to his initial justification for their quest, which seems increasingly untenable as the journey grows more perilous. Johnson’s stripped-down, evocative prose conveys the building tension with no more words than absolutely necessary, delivering us to a conclusion with the surreal, hectic confusion of a fever dream.

Despite Johnson’s formidable talents, however, parts of the novel seem disappointingly underbaked. While Adriko and Nair pose substantial if enigmatic figures in the world of the novel, the supposed third central figure, Davidia, is weightless and vague. Though educated and intelligent, she appears to have no calculation in her, no motive in engaging in this bizarre quest aside from naive adoration for Adriko. Her personality, we know, emanates “glamor,” but aside from that she seems not only unknowable but unimportant, save as a plot device and, ultimately, an emblem for Nair’s confused but powerful fascination with Adriko.

Her exoticization by Nair, who comments lasciviously about her adjusting her waistband with “a very African, very female shimmy,” is of a piece with the broader racial tensions of the novel. The journey into Africa as a plunge into physical and psychological danger harkens back to colonialist narratives like Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, and though Johnson’s execution is deft, his othering portrayal of Africa allows scenes to descend to the level of cartoonish stereotypes.

Johnson's ability to construct characters who loom powerfully despite their sketchiness and evasiveness makes The Laughing Monsters a compelling read, but it's hard not to wish the same complexity had been bestowed upon Davidia and the many African people given such standard, slapdash treatment throughout.

What other reviewers think:

The Guardian: "While Nobody Move was the equal of most crime fiction, The Laughing Monsters is inferior to the very best spy novels. But this story of disguised lives should still help Johnson’s progress out of the publishing shadows."

Slate: "Wherever his characters are in the world, Johnson’s interest is in their interior states. But there is something in West Africa that apparently overwhelms him, and neutralizes his gift for poetic emotional chaos."

Who wrote it?

The Laughing Monsters is Denis Johnson’s ninth novel. He has also written a novella, Train Dreams, and a book of short stories, Jesus’ Son, as well as three poetry collections and two collections of plays. Johnson’s novel Tree of Smoke was awarded the 2007 National Book Award.

Who will read it?

Fans of dark, twisted literary fiction with military and espionage themes.

Opening lines:

“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.”

Notable passage:

“In an instant the day ended, night came down, and the many voices around us, for the space of ten seconds, went quiet. A few hundred meters away the buildings began, but not a single light shone from the powerless city, and the outcry coming from the void wasn’t so much from horns and engines but rather more from humans and their despairing animals.”