Shades of Zevon in African adventure
FANS of the late Warren Zevon will be delighted to learn that his ghost appears to have collaborated with Denis Johnson on the U.S. National Book Award winner’s latest novel, a short, chaotic, black comedy set in west and central Africa. With The Laughing Monsters, Johnson, whose last book was the spare, understated Pulitzer nominee Train Dreams, is back on familiar ground for fans of Tree of Smoke, his award-winning 2005 novel of war and espionage in Vietnam. The Laughing Monsters is a picaresque story of a pair of old friends reunited in Africa on a wandering path of betrayal and self-destruction. The title refers to a group of hills in eastern Congo said to have been nicknamed the Laughing Monsters by a 19th-century missionary murdered in the area. While the mountains appear to be fictitious, missionary James Hannington is a historic figure whose death as one of a group of “Anglican Martyrs” led to the imposition of British Imperialism in Uganda — a story that fits well with Johnson’s theme. A story of empire and bloodshed set in Congo will immediately call to mind Joseph Conrad. The Laughing Monsters owes even more, perhaps, to the mad balladeer of 1970s California rock, Warren Zevon, especially his mercenary songs Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner and Jungle Work. Johnson’s protagonist Roland (!) Nair is a heavy-drinking, self-destructive, half-Danish NATO spy assigned to make contact with Michael Adriko, a former child soldier turned American special-forces operative. But once the action commences in Liberia, it becomes clear that the two have their own agendas involving selling American military secrets or weaponsgrade uranium and, possibly, finding a hidden corner of Africa where they can rule as warlords. Early, while selling Roland on his plan, Michael paints a picture out of Kipling’s The Man Who Would be King: “(W)e make ourselves unreachable. A man can choose a valley, one with narrow entrances — defensible entries — and claim it as his nation, like Rhodes in Rhodesia.” Long before we reach those hills in Congo, we realize that Roland and Michael are the Laughing Monsters, especially when their dialogue has a kind of comedy-act rhythm to it. The Laughing Monsters isn’t one of those John Le Carré-style espionage novels with slow, careful gathering and analysis of information and understated verisimilitude. Rather, Johnson presents a grab-bag of agendas and operatives from the CIA, South Africa, Interpol, Mossad and MI5 or MI6 (Roland admits that he doesn’t even know how many MIs there are). It’s set in the nightmare Africa that dominates news coverage — a place of maniac drivers, teenage prostitutes, violence, failed humanitarian gestures and at least one mad prophet, who puts in a late but memorable appearance. At times the details barely make sense, but that’s Johnson’s point. “Credible? It sounds completely and obviously false,” Roland says. “Out of keeping with reality.” “Reality is not a fact.” “Around here it certainly isn’t.” The Laughing Monsters is a bad trip of a novel, filled with hallucinatory truths and images that remain in the mind like scenes from a nightmare. Bob Armstrong is a Winnipeg writer who still knows all the lyrics to Warren
Zevon’s Excitable Boy album.
The Laughing Monsters