Dennis Johnson seemed to emerge a few years ago with his best known book, “Trees of Smoke”, a tough, surreal and simply one of the best Vietnam War novels ever written, standing proud along side Tim O’Brian’s “The Things They Carried” and Graham Greene’s “The Quiet American”. For some reason, I assumed that Dennis was a one-hit wonder with “Trees of Smoke”.
I was wrong. He has produced quite a range, and “The Laughing Monsters” is his most recent work, and at about 230 small pages, I am forced to assume it is a novella. It won the National Book Award. Which actually means something, unlike being a ‘New York Times Bestseller’ or being the winner of the “Ritz-Paris-Hemingway Award”, which is/was real, but means little.
I’ll try not to rant and rave here: “The Laughing Monsters” was excellent, and at the risk of some serious hyperbole, I think it is the “Heart of Darkness” of our time; of the time of the War on Terror. Think Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” meets Hemingway’s “For Whom Bell Tolls”, with a dash of “Zero Dark Thirty” and a hint of “The Last King of Scotland”.
Let me explain. Our protagonist – Roland Nair – mysterious, but obviously a spook; an operator of some kind, for someone – is back in Africa after ten years. 9/11, the War on Terror and events in Iraq and Afghanistan have intervened. He meets up with Michael Adriko, a former child soldier, a commando for the US Special Forces; perhaps a mercenary. Adriko is charismatic, lucky, skilled; beautifully mad and colourful. Nair is hard-bitten, flim-noir-ish, clever and cynical. Both are plagued by their respective demons. The color of their skin deeply marks the characters, a weakness or a strength depending on the situation.
I will not reveal anymore of the plot.
But there is a third character who’s presence and role in the book brings it up and beyond just a more sophisticated Tom Clancy escapade in Africa. Adriko is engaged to Davidia, a young American women. She is smart, fun, savvy; and a total bombshell (and yet a real and convincing character; clearly much more than a simple male fantasy stand-in).
Davidia is innocent, but not naive. Part primordial goddess, part femme fatale, she is nearly a living symbol of…what? Well, she represents, one sense to Nair and Adriko an escape from the fear, cynicism and brutality of Africa, of life; Davidia is the ticket out, the symbol of living the best kind of life.
Lastly, “The Laughing Monsters” provides a depiction of post 9/11 espionage during the Bush Administration. Terrorism and genocide lurk around every corner; the Chinese loom in the background, the Mossad is involved. Everyone is a spy.
My favourite section of the novel, and some of its best lines and moments comes from Nair’s encounter with the US Special Forces based in Africa, and a senior Bush official. The telling line is “We can doing anything.” Brilliant. It is a telling contrast between the American base (which feels a bit like a fort of Buffalo Soldiers out in indian country) and the various armed warlords and general plight of the land and people itself.
The climax is pure Conrad, pure Apocalypse Now. Totally satisfying, like scotch and steak satisfying; we encounter “La Dolce Vita” who is the priestess queen of genocide; the earth itself is poisoned and dying…are the laughing monsters Nair and Adriko? Or something else? Brilliant I say.
I will leave it at that.