Summary and book reviews of The Laughing Monsters by Denis Johnson

The Laughing Monsters

by Denis Johnson

The Laughing Monsters by Denis Johnson X
The Laughing Monsters by Denis Johnson
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     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Nov 2014, 240 pages
    Paperback:
    Oct 2015, 240 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Poornima Apte
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About this Book

Book Summary

Denis Johnson's The Laughing Monsters is a high-suspense tale of kaleidoscoping loyalties in the post-9/11 world that shows one of our great novelists at the top of his game.

Roland Nair calls himself Scandinavian but travels on a U.S. passport. After ten years' absence, he returns to Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, to reunite with his friend Michael Adriko. They once made a lot of money here during the country's civil war, and, curious to see whether good luck will strike twice in the same place, Nair allows himself to be drawn back to a region he considers hopeless.

Adriko is an African who styles himself a soldier of fortune and who claims to have served, at various times, the Ghanaian army, the Kuwaiti Emiri Guard, and the American Green Berets. He's probably broke now, but he remains, at thirty-six, as stirred by his own doubtful schemes as he was a decade ago.

Although Nair believes some kind of money-making plan lies at the back of it all, Adriko's stated reason for inviting his friend to Freetown is for Nair to meet Adriko's fiancée, a grad student girl named Davidia from Colorado. Together the three set out to visit Adriko's clan in the Uganda-Congo borderland- but each of these travelers is keeping secrets from the others.

Shadowed by Interpol, the Mossad, and MI6, Nair gets mired in lust and betrayal in a landscape of frighteningly casual violence as he travels with Adriko and Davidia, gets smuggled into a war zone, gets kidnapped by the Congo Army, and is terrorized by a self-proclaimed god ruling over a dying village. Their journey through a land abandoned by the future leads Adriko, Nair, and Davidia to meet themselves not in a new light, but rather in a new darkness.

A high-suspense tale of kaleidoscoping loyalties in the post-9/11 world, Denis Johnson's The Laughing Monsters shows one of our great novelists at the top of his game.

ONE

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. The shuttle to the terminal wasn't bad, but not air-conditioned.

Inside the building, the usual throng of fools. I studied the shining black faces, but I didn't see Michael's.

The PA spoke. Only the vowels came through. I called over the heads of the queue at the desk—"Did I hear a page for Mr. Nair?"

"No, sir. No," the man called back.

"Mr. Nair?"

"Nothing for such a name."

A man in a dark suit and necktie said, "Welcome, Mr. Naylor, to Sierra Leone," and helped me through the mess and chatted with me all through customs, which didn't take long, because I'm all carry-on. He helped me outside to a clean white car, a Honda Prelude. "And for me," he said, with a queasy-looking smile, "two hundred dollars." I gave him a ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

Fans of Denis Johnson (I count myself among them) will find much to love in The Laughing Monsters. His powerful, adrenaline-fueled writing is in full force and he brings Africa alive in these pages: “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. Meanwhile, waiters went from table to table lighting tapers in tall glass chimneys.” Despite the crisp prose however, the plot doesn’t coalesce into a smooth whole...Of course, with a writer like Denis Johnson, even these discrete pieces can make for great reading...continued

Full Review (647 words).

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(Reviewed by Poornima Apte).

Media Reviews

Elle
With each twist, Johnson deftly ups the stakes while adding to the cavalcade of entrepreneurs, assassins, seers, and smugglers that populate the book, tuning us in to the roiling political realities and cultural complexities of Africa today ... This visionary novel is always falling together, never apart. That's Johnson.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
An adventure without any expected twists. Mr. Johnson is adept at keeping the pace of the story up without sacrificing either suspense or satisfaction . . . The mystery is worth trying to solve.

Los Angeles Times
Johnson's tenth novel is a stunner... Johnson's sentences are always brilliant, but it is in the interstices, the gray areas of the story, that he really excels.

Kirkus Reviews
Johnson offers no new lessons about how dehumanizing post-9/11 lawlessness can be, but his antihero's story is an intriguing metaphor for it.

Publishers Weekly
Huge insects, dangerous bogs, something called "Baboon Whiskey," a dining room that only plays Nat King Cole's "Smile" over and over, and even, toward the end, some effective nods to Heart of Darkness all help to make the book's setting its strongest character.

Library Journal
Starred Review. In a work that's part spy novel and part buddy tale, Johnson aptly locates his portrayal of a shadowy world of complicated relationships and ever-shifting alliances in one of the more broken places on the planet. This is what you might get if you combined Casablanca's cynicism and sense of intrigue with a touch of Heart of Darkness post-9/11.

Reader Reviews

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Beyond the Book

Congo and Dirty Minerals

In The Laughing Monsters, Denis Johnson shows that Africa has been exploited for minerals for a good long time. "This time we concern ourselves with metals and minerals," points out the main character, Roland Nair, trying to explain his mission that takes him from Sierra Leone to Congo.

MineralsThe Democratic Republic of the Congo is particularly rich in gold, diamonds and a host of other minerals especially valuable to the electronics industry, most notably what are known as the 3Ts, tin, tungsten and tantalum. Just as trade in illicit antiquities has fueled terrorism in countries around the world (see Beyond the Book for De Potter's Grand Tour), these "dirty" minerals and ores are controlled by an assortment of groups from legitimate ...

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