Drifter, Dealer, Madman, Spy

Working the literary landscape of international espionage, the novelist Denis Johnson specializes in madness.

Chris Koehler

In the ’70s they were in Saigon. In the ’80s they were in Managua. In the aughts they haunted Kandahar and Kabul. Now they’ve resurfaced in Freetown, Arua, and Bamako. They belong to the international shadow class: stateless drifters, misanthropes, and adrenaline junkies with tenuous ties to intelligence agencies, drug cartels, and arms dealers. They are ambassadors of “the secrets and the dark,” in Denis Johnson’s phrase, and if their stories are slightly too good to be true, we can forgive them, because they fabricate for a living. The geopolitical situation may change, wars come and go, but these characters are always the same. They work for no one and everyone, but mainly they work for themselves.

I have no idea whether such people exist in the real world, but for more than a century these shifty-eyed characters have shown up in the work of novelists as diverse as Joseph Conrad, G. K. Chesterton, Graham Greene, Joan Didion, Robert Stone, Don DeLillo, and James Ellroy. They have also appeared before in the novels of Denis Johnson; think of the nameless British businessman in The Stars at Noon, adrift in Managua, who seems to be in cahoots with an oil company, the CIA, the Sandinistas, and the Contras; or the intelligence officers and spies in Tree of Smoke who pass freely between North and South Vietnam, ferrying secrets and assassination plots. Johnson has returned to international espionage in his slim new novel, which is set in Africa during the Obama administration. The Laughing Monsters is a traditional spy caper, and like any genre novel, it is most satisfying when it abandons convention and allows us insight into the author’s own personal madness.

Few novelists write as well about madness as Johnson, a savant of pipe dreams and paranoiac fantasies, but in the early throes of The Laughing Monsters he seems determined to play it straight. His narrator is Roland Nair: 38, half American and half Danish, a captain in the Danish army, on assignment for NATO’s intelligence agency in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Like so many of Johnson’s creations, Nair is a drifter at an uncertain position in life, open to opportunity and fearful of it, too. He corresponds intermittently with a girlfriend in Amsterdam named Tina, who also works for NATO intelligence, and though we never see or hear her directly, we gather that she is a smart, dependable, caring woman. Nair doesn’t deserve her. He is unsatisfied, and neither he nor the reader has any expectation that he will ever find satisfaction.

Nair has arrived in Freetown to reconnect with Michael Adriko, a friend, former colleague (they served together in Afghanistan during the Bush 43 regime), and high-level practitioner of the shadow arts, who has a number of wild plots on his brain. Most recently, Adriko, who was born in Congo but has Arab blood, numerous passports, and no real home, has been serving as an attaché to the U.S. Special Forces, helping them to track down the Lord’s Resistance Army. But now he has gone AWOL. Sources place him in Sierra Leone, where he is making noises about brokering a sale for enriched uranium stolen from the Russians. Nair is assigned to track Adriko and report on his movements. Nair has little interest in ratting on his friend, however. Mainly he seems excited by the prospect of joining Adriko in whatever stunts he has planned. It’s easy to see why Nair is attracted to Adriko, whom we see for the first time in a Freetown hotel. He is the consummate stage villain:

In the middle of the lobby stood a figure in a two-piece jogging suit of royal purple velour, a large man with a bald, chocolate, bullet-shaped head, which he wagged from side to side as he blew his nose loudly and violently into a white hand towel. People were either staring or making sure they didn’t. This was Michael Adriko.

The man knows how to make an entrance. He also knows what Nair wants to hear. He invites Nair to join him on a job but is vague about the details, saying only that it involves “metals and minerals.” When Nair presses him for more information, Adriko demurs. “More will be revealed,” he says, in proper spy-novel fashion. “I’ll fill you in eventually.” Adriko won’t explain his methods, but he will at least entice Nair with his vision of the “results”:

You’ll live like a king. A compound by the beach. Fifty men with AKs to guard you. The villagers come to you for everything. They bring their daughters, twelve years old—virgins, Nair, no AIDS from these girls. You’ll have a new one every night. Five hundred men in your militia. You know you want it. They dance at night, a big bonfire, and the magic men come and stretch their arms to the length of a python, and change into all kinds of animals, and drums pounding, and naked dancers, all just for you, Nair!

There is a touch here, in the magic men with arms like pythons, of Johnson’s particular flavor of madness: a burnt-out evangelicalism tempered by a talent for black humor and an acute sense of the grotesque. Though Johnson’s style is restrained in The Laughing Monsters, it sprouts up through the cracks in vivid shoots. This is one of the novel’s main attractions—the awkward encounters between Johnson’s bursts of mad-eyed prose and the rigid demands of his hard-boiled plot. You can see his style emerge in his description of the aroma of the sanitized Freetown hotel rooms, an aroma that says, “All that you fear, we have killed,” or in his account of a motorcycle ride through town that leaves Nair feeling “more alive but also murdered.” That might be the most concise description of the spiritual quality of Johnson’s fiction. His characters want badly to feel alive, but the best way they know how is to try to get themselves killed.

Johnson’s characters want badly to feel alive, but the best way they know how is to try to get themselves killed.

This, at any rate, seems to be Nair’s goal. He blindly follows Adriko into a crazy plot to scam undercover Israeli nationals into buying phony enriched uranium. Shoot-outs and knife fights ensue, as do brushes with Interpol, the Mossad, the CIA, and MI5; kidnappings and escapes; and a particularly Kurtzian episode in the Congo jungle, amid a tribe that appears to have gone terminally insane. At some point along the way, Nair has the brilliant idea to pawn NATO and U.S. intelligence secrets to a mysterious foreign agent who is probably representing China.

Just when the deluge of state secrets threatens to dissolve into chaos, Johnson retreats. He is a courteous guide, careful to remind the reader what has happened, and where we are going. As the details begin to overwhelm, he turns our attention inward, to a love triangle formed by Nair, Adriko, and Adriko’s fiancée, a beautiful American whose father is a commander with the U.S. Special Forces. The spy plot yields to a story of thwarted love. For all its chaos and complexity, The Laughing Monsters is one of Johnson’s most disciplined efforts. He never loses control, even though Nair most certainly does.

At some point—perhaps after Nair has his first breakdown, or at least by the time he finds himself in the middle of the Congo jungle at the mercy of a tribe ruled by a madwoman screaming for blood sacrifice—the reader may begin to wonder what this is all about. Are we reading a fable about the new global order, and America’s increasingly tenuous grasp of reality beyond its borders? There are gestures in this direction. “Since nine-eleven,” says one high-ranking U.S. intelligence agent, “chasing myths and fairy tales has turned into a serious business. An industry. A lucrative one.” At other times Johnson seems to be posing questions about personal liberty and ambition. Is Nair in control of his fate, or has he yielded to mystical, primitive forces? Elsewhere the novel reads like an inquiry into the lure of nihilistic hedonism in an amoral age. Nair has returned to Africa, and intelligence work, because “I love the mess. Anarchy. Madness. Things falling apart. Michael only makes my excuse for returning.” Nair doesn’t want simply to observe the madness; he wants to fall apart too.

There is an echo here of the rapid descent into chaos and lasciviousness in Georges Simenon’s Tropic Moon, also set in West Africa, and of the determination to “go to pieces” that inspires the heroines of Two Serious Ladies, Jane Bowles’s novel about tropical dissolution. Nair, like Bowles’s serious ladies, will do anything to avoid returning to his old “boring existence.” The exact contours of that boring existence are never explicated, though we can assume that it includes an office job and marriage to poor, dutiful Tina.

Then again, his colonial fantasy of living out the rest of his existence “like Rhodes in Rhodesia,” the lord of his own personal African fiefdom, comes to feel no less nightmarish. Johnson, or at least Nair, does not have a particularly nuanced view of Africa. The Laughing Monsters is never more retrograde than in its hoary view of the continent—a “land of chaos, despair,” of two-headed babies and reckless drivers who don’t bother to glance in the rearview mirror at the people they run over in the road. Nair is prone to declarations like “In Africa, reasonable arguments were just mumbo jumbo.” Or: “Sometimes you just get stuck. That’s Africa.” In Africa, “there’s always some woman or infant or animal screaming.”

The metaphor that lingers is, like so much in the novel, a conventional one, albeit one reanimated by Johnson’s bristling, cockeyed prose: a moth flying into the flame of a candle. Nair sees this moth while he’s writing a letter that he may never send to a woman he will probably never have. The moth is as “big as a sparrow,” Nair writes, and it “batted out the flame in its forays and then crashed at my feet with its paraffin-spattered wings on fire and lay there flailing and burning for several minutes—all because of its infatuation.” Nair is drawn in the same way to Adriko, who emerges as the novel’s hero, decisive, charismatic, and wiser than he is foolish. It is one of the novel’s punch lines that Adriko turns out to be the sanest character of all. Every wild tale he tells is revealed to be true. Unlike Nair, Adriko is in total control of his destiny. He is a man of our time: adept at negotiating the gray zones where national interests, terrorism, and capitalism meet.

And Johnson is a novelist of our time, posing difficult questions about politics and morality but refusing to answer them. It is in this refusal that The Laughing Monsters finally breaks away from the genre’s claustrophobic conventions. When it does, at the end of the novel, it’s a relief to the reader, and a relief, it seems, to Johnson. We leave Nair just where we found him: wandering around Africa in search of adventure and chaos. Where will he end up? “Maybe back to Ghana. Maybe Senegal. There’s always Cameroon.” Johnson, like his narrator, loves the mess, and dares his readers to do the same.