Mar. 13, 2015 by Darius
“Since nine-eleven, chasing myths and fairy tales has turned into a serious business. An industry. A lucrative one. … We can do anything.” So says one of the characters in The Laughing Monsters by Denis Johnson. It’s a thoroughly modern novel that I can’t really say I enjoyed, but it nonetheless makes for interesting reading. The Laughing Monsters begins as sort of a post-9/11 spy story, with characters Hemingway might have appreciated, and segues into a contemporary Heart of Darkness as it wends its way through the security apparatus of Africa.
Roland Nair is an officer with NATO intelligence, though his real loyalty is to himself. He receives a cryptic message from an old friend, Michael Adriko, a soldier of fortune always concocting a new way to get rich through morally dubious means, who summons him to West Africa to discuss a new scheme. Adriko persuades Nair to travel with him to his home village in Uganda, where Adriko will marry his fiancée and fill in the rest of the details on the plot to get rich for life.
As Nair and Adriko travel deep into the center of Africa, nobody is who they seem, and the journey rapidly becomes one they might not survive.
The Laughing Monsters was not a fun read, and it thoroughly turned me off traveling to sub-Saharan Africa any time soon (even though I had great West African food for dinner last night). The characters seem designed to showcase the worst facets of humanity. On the plus side: The Laughing Monsters is not terribly long, so the time investment to read it is accordingly small. The Laughing Monsters is not the kind of book that stays with you. In fact, I doubt you would remember the conclusion two weeks later. But this is a novel that is about the journey and not the destination.