IT'S A NEW WORLD, at least in terms of espionage thrillers. Since 9/11—or since the end of the Cold War, really—our globe's power anchors have shifted and deteriorated, along with a Westerner's clear-cut sense of right and wrong. As China emerges as an economic superpower and imperialism sputters toward its end, and as grassroots military groups, terrorist and otherwise, become global players, the landscape for 21st-century spy stories is wide open. In this new world, it's every person for him- or herself. Forget queen, let alone country.
Denis Johnson sets his swift, tense new novel, The Laughing Monsters, in this moral and political muddle. Roland Nair flies into Freetown, Sierra Leone, with the supposed agenda of reconnecting with a friend to possibly embark on a moneymaking venture. As he dodges familiar faces at the airport and checks in with his contacts back home, Johnson gives us brief glimpses of Nair's shadowy, unreliable nature. In Nair's friend, African Michael Adriko, Johnson draws a very different character, one who's equally mysterious but imbued with life, depth, and loss.
Nair's perception of this hot, troubled part of the world fuels the first stages of The Laughing Monsters. (Ebola is not yet a factor here.) Its global scope could come as a surprise to those who have only read Jesus' Son, Johnson's brilliant short-story collection of functional, parched-dry prose. In that book, the stark, wintry Midwest is seen though the reddened eyes of drug addicts with Carver-esque simplicity and profundity. Here, Johnson more closely echoes his National Book Award-winning Tree of Smoke, a lengthy 2007 novel about coiled allegiances during the Vietnam War. That book drew comparisons to Graham Greene, and The Laughing Monsters will, too.
Actually, I kept thinking of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. As Nair and Adriko's moneymaking plan unravels—and as Nair's hidden agendas (there are several) reveal themselves—they're forced to keep moving, first to Uganda, then to the isolated bush of Democratic Republic of the Congo. Nair collapses into alcoholism as his loyalties scatter; the further off the map he and Adriko travel, the more their identities are stifled and eventually stripped.
The story, told via Nair's alcohol-dulled senses, hurtles along confusedly, and Johnson rarely stops long enough to get the reader situated. But his vivid, panicked prose offers something more rewarding than a painstakingly plotted thriller. Nair's ultimate loyalty, like that of most men, is malleable under duress, and Johnson knows—as Conrad did—that there are no easy answers in the darkness.