Unlike many Americans – and American novelists – Denis Johnson travels confidently into continents other than his own. He has escorted readers into the rebel-occupied Nicaraguan jungles of The Stars at Noon, and across the drug-addled battlefields of Vietnam in the National Book Award-winning Tree of Smoke. Like Robert Stone or Paul Bowles, the writers he most resembles, Johnson writes about people who don’t feel at home anywhere – so they might as well take a trip. In fact, the protagonist of The Laughing Monsters, Roland Nair (raised in California, but now a captain in the Danish army), has taken off on a trip to Sierra Leone, so far from anywhere called home that he may not find his way back again. He drinks too much, works for any intelligence agency that will have him and has trouble keeping track of his own disinformation; when he isn’t making urgent deals with prostitutes, he is sending off devoted, carefully composed emails to his longtime lover back at headquarters. Finally, as if he doesn’t have enough bad karma on his plate, he suffers from conflicted feelings about helping his old friend and former bodyguard Michael Adriko to get married to the beautiful daughter of a US Special Forces commander, to survive a multitude of potential double crosses and to make his honeymoon money scamming Mossad with a fake (or not so fake) package of enriched uranium.
It’s a complicated, Graham Greene-like world, in which friendship and professionalism aren’t easy to distinguish from one another, especially since Nair should be reporting on Adriko to his old bosses back at NATO – even while his old bosses at NATO are steadily misinforming him about what’s really going on.