Shades of Zevon in African ad­ven­ture

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Bob Arm­strong

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

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