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The Laughing Monsters

3.18  ·  Rating details ·  3,413 ratings  ·  490 reviews
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, Sierra Leone, to reunite with his friend Michael Adriko. They once made a lot o
Hardcover, 228 pages
Published November 4th 2014 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (first published 2014)
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3.18  · 
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Nov 17, 2014 rated it it was ok
Shelves: pub-2014
‘The Laughing Monsters’ is a twist on the spy thriller – the twist being that it’s not very thrilling. This book just really doesn’t know what it wants to be when it grows up.

It's a story of selfishness and moral decay set against the backdrop of the cruel world of clichéd Africa. I suppose it must be hard to write about Africa, especially if you're a white middle-aged American dude - you're going to run into trouble no matter what you do. It's even more upsetting because Denis Johnson spent a
Feb 26, 2015 rated it it was ok
Shelves: fiction, i-spy
Very disappointing. The book had possibilities, but it seemed to fall apart (fragment) over the last 75 pages (which is significant given the novel is only 228 pages long). Ever since Tree of Smoke, Johnson has been writing small, genre-like stuff. Nobody Move was a nasty and tight little noir, and the wonderful Train Dreams which is more-than-a-Western. But Train Dreams was just a reprint from 2002. At this point you have to wonder if Johnson is working on something big, or he's just suffering ...more
Jason Coleman
Nov 15, 2014 rated it liked it
Shelves: greatest-hits
Freetown, Sierra Leone. A casually treacherous, alcoholic NATO agent meets up with his old friend, a Ugandan mercenary and lost soul. A few options here for them to make some money—sell a map of NATO's African fiber-optics network to the Arabs, or maybe flash a plug of uranium to Mossad and tell them there's more in a non-existent plane wreck in some jungle. So many possibilities in the new Africa; so many interests converging, and yet so few rules. Although Johnson sets all of this up nicely, h ...more
Nov 18, 2014 rated it liked it
Denis Johnson's latest book is "high-suspense tale of kaleidoscoping loyalties in the post-9/11 world" which is also mercifully shorter than his 2007 award winning Tree of Smoke, a 700 page long, sweeping psychedelic and often confusing novel about the Vietnam War. The Laughing Monsters is also sweeping and psychedelic novel, but at 228 mercifully shorter and much more focused - even though still occasionally confusing - suspense thriller set in West Africa.

The novel begins in the Sierra Leone c
Jul 28, 2018 rated it did not like it
Denis Johnson is brilliant; this book is terrible. I was crestfallen when I found myself reading 220 pages of racist tropes, tired action scenes, and the thoughts of yet another depressed, oversexed white person "finding themselves" in Africa.

The narrator is insufferable. He's obsessed with sex: He hires and uses one-dimensional black prostitutes left and right, scrawls lewd messages to his one-dimensional lust interest, and tries to steal his partner-in-crime's one-dimensional fiancée. He's ob
Nov 01, 2014 rated it liked it
His words sweat with the essence
of adventure I'll never experience.
Which is probably for the best.
Jason Pettus
[Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography ( I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reprinted illegally.]

It's funny that the same week I read Denis Johnson's new novel, The Laughing Monsters, I also happened to catch the new movie A Most Wanted Man, which has been (rightly) described by most critics as "based on a minor John LeCarre novel;" because when it starts out, it seems like this is going to be the bes
Jul 24, 2014 rated it liked it
Shelves: fiction
his first non-serial novel since 2007's national book award-winning tree of smoke, the laughing monsters is denis johnson's foray into spy fiction. set in the post-9/11 era of inter-agency intelligence, espionage, and double-dealing, johnson's new novel takes place in western and central africa. a first-person narrative chronicled by nato agent roland nair, the laughing monsters features three main characters - each with conflicting and often self-serving loyalties.

with a breadth of work that sp
This was a pretty quick read. It was only a little over 50,000 words. That's a novella IMO. Unfortunately, I thought it was pretty "meh." This was another case of an author who is highly skilled writing a story that I just never really connected with on any level.
Edward Rathke
Mar 04, 2016 rated it really liked it
This novel's hard to describe, but it's kind of doing a few very different things at the same time, and to varying degrees.

It's a bit like Kurtz from Heart of Darkness, but with less ambition.

But it's also a love story between two friends who sort of hate each other.

It's about a white man who mentally and emotionally dissolves and combusts in Africa. The weight of the continent and its various cultures and conflicts bend and then break him. This is sort of problematic, in that it does feel very
Apr 20, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2019
I love books like this. Start out all realistic, then spiral into surreality. Then, boom, happy ending.
Oct 17, 2014 rated it it was ok
Shelves: 2014-reads, audio
It's generally accepted that Johnson is a masterful writer and I don't disagree, but this novel failed for me because of his handling of the subject matter. For the first few hours I was impressed by the skills of the audiobook narrator and lulled into appreciation, but I gradually realized how grim and un-redemptive this all was, and also how not-entertaining.

I know it's probably supposed to be hard-boiled and he's playing with genre a bit, but the women characters were offensively handled (in
If this had been written by just about anyone else, this would be a solid four star book - but because it's Denis Johnson, and I've seen what else he can do, it just didn't quite land with me.

It's not that The Laughing Monsters is bad - it's a wild story with fascinating characters that move a mile a minute, constantly keeping you guessing, sucking you in to more elaborate puzzles and schemes with each passing page. It's just that when compared to some of Johnson's other works, it feels like it'
Feb 15, 2015 rated it it was ok
I’ve read a lot of great things about Denis Johnson, but Tree of Smoke looks long and like a lot of work, so once again, I picked up a much smaller book of his (the previous being the novella Train Dreams) that I didn’t like all that much. Lesson learned: read the one with rave reviews, or forever fail to understand why people like an author.

The Laughing Monsters is described as a “post-9/11 literary spy thriller,” but that’s like calling Zapped! a highbrow investigation into the limits of scien
Jul 27, 2014 rated it really liked it
A Catch-22 for the post-9/11 world of geopolitical espionage, The Laughing Monsters illustrates the terrifying and tragic, and sadly ridiculous, results of having bodies with primary economic interests serving as the tip of the (inter)national security spear.

Denis Johnson presents this world through a relatively small story of two main characters--simultaneously allies and adversaries--and their misadventures in western Africa. The stage is chaotic, the actors mercenary. Their actions are crave
Mar 30, 2015 rated it liked it
Johnson's African espionage novel is as entertaining as it is confusing. The characters were memorable, and there were intense action sequences and exotic settings. I think the general uncertainty was part of the larger point - Johnson paints a portrait of modern Africa as a land where the people suffer due to the obscure and often contradictory motives of governments and agencies; but I still felt like I would have gotten more out of this book had I understood what was going on. For most author ...more
Nov 14, 2014 rated it it was ok
Pardon the pun, but for those like me who loved Train Dreams, this one went off the rails. Not sure exactly what the point of this book was. It was of course sharp and well-written on a sentence basis, but the story was virtually non-existent and the characters flat. It's a fast read, if that is a factor, but most people would be better served skipping it. Johnson is a masterful writer, but he didn't get it done here.
there's perhaps nobody better able to take the 'facts' of modern perpetual war on terror and the war on modernism than denis johnson. he does the "powers-that-be-speak" so well, with their bureaucratic-law-speak justifying grotesque perversions of justice while simultaneously chronicling the lives of the downtrodden and dispossessed matter of factly and with compassion. a fun novel of usa and west;s new adventures in africa via military 'interventions' in 'humanitarianism'.
Anthony McGill
Nov 30, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: fiction-general

Beautifully written with colorful characters and an interesting and unusual setting.
A fascinating insight into the political and social upheavals which plague so many African countries, and the dealings and doings of the mysterious underworld of foreign agents and mercenaries.
I must admit the story is not one of my favorite themes and had me a little confused at times but I admire the author for producing a fine work of literature.
Chad Post
Dec 29, 2014 rated it really liked it
Check out the upcoming Three Percent podcast for my thoughts on this. (And the thoughts of Tom Roberge and Patrick Smith.)
Jul 11, 2017 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: adult-fiction, audio
There is a minor trope that you see out there sometimes, mostly from white male Western authors: white guy goes to Africa (sometimes South America or Asia), loses his shit.

And mostly this amuses me. I don't mind seeing a Master of the Universe broken down to his component parts in a puddle of sweat and bile. I'd like to think I've done it myself once or twice. But unless you really have something new to show us - something about Africa, say, besides IT IS UNREGULATED AND PEOPLE BE CRAZY, which i
Oct 20, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: fiction
Denis Johnson dabbles here in the world of Graham Greene’s international intrigue entertainments. It is very well done with its unreliable narrator, Roland Nair, a European-American free-booter in Africa, who spies on/partners with his friend—if words like friend, partner, spy have any meaning in a world where selfish opportunity seems the only driving currency and betrayal the cheap denomination that floods the market. To be sure, there are codes of honor but they are fluid; there are larger ca ...more
Dan Downing
May 26, 2019 rated it really liked it
A fine tale with no beginning, no ending and no point except that occasionally while plans don't work out as expected, one can emerge with hope and perhaps a bundle. Our protagonist isn't going to be cited for bravery or held up as an example by proud dads everywhere, but he makes for a quasi-realistic figure and an entertaining page dancer.
Denis Johnson writes well and evokes the dreariness of Africa and the innate silliness of international espionage.
Chad Sayban
Dec 04, 2014 rated it did not like it
More reviews at The Story Within The Story

As Roland Nair contemplates his future, sitting in Freetown, Sierra Leone, he wonders why he let himself be drawn back to such a hopeless place. Meeting up with self-styled African soldier-of-fortune Michael Adriko and his fiancée Davidia, Nair journeys across the desolate African landscape in pursuit of one last money-making scheme. But between the Ghanaian army, American Green Berets and packs of mercenaries, Nair will be lucky to make it out of Africa
Sep 23, 2015 rated it really liked it
The Laughing Monsters (2014) is an antic novel that focuses on two friends—one white, one black—whose wild adventure starts in pre-Ebola Freetown, Sierra Leone, and unravels across Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Ghana. Their goal is to make a financial killing doing something—selling government secrets, peddling fake uranium—then retire to a life on the beach.
Roland Nair, the book’s narrator, is a Scandinavian/American/NATO spook and an admitted coward in a land where courage need
Nov 05, 2014 rated it really liked it
My experience reading spy thrillers and “high suspense tales of kaleidoscoping loyalties” has generally led me to classify such stories along a scale comprising, at one end, spy romps (think Ian Fleming), and at the other, stories of wearied bureaucratic spooks who no longer labor under the illusion that what they do matters except in a self-referential game of one-upmanship with the opponent-of-the-day (think John le Carré).

James Bond, his enemies, and the characters of le Carré (e.g. George Sm
Jul 31, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2015
The Laughing Monsters is like a hit of acid. It takes you into realities of the author's making that have enough to do with agreed reality to keep you grounded but are, excuse the term, far out enough to have you wandering through the pages feeling a little uncertain, disoriented, maybe even vertiginous, and occasionally floored by hallucinations . This was also true of Tree of Smoke, his National Book Award winner, only to the extreme, and though I worked through its nearly 600 pages I have as ...more
Dec 28, 2014 rated it liked it
Denis Johnson is someone I've wanted to read for a long while and this recent book which was described to me as a kind of "African noir" seemed intriguing. It's about three people who are all conning each other: ex cia operative, gun-runner criminal, beautiful model and daughter. There is a kind of Graham Greene feel to this novel: taking place in a country half way around the world, filled with seedy places and unsavoury people, trying to find a way to survive in a horrible world filled with ho ...more
Ned Frederick
Jan 04, 2015 rated it it was ok
Nobody creates atmospherics like Johnson. And in Laughing Monsters he populates a sub-Saharan third world, that manages to include all nine of Dante's circles of hell, with characters who are authentic and colorful. That I'll give him. But Nair, the main character, spends way too much time sucking down booze in third world hotel bars for a serious operator of long experience. He seems permanently semi-impaired and, with the help of a crazy associate, gets caught up in folly of a sort only a gang ...more
Aaron Guest
Oct 29, 2014 rated it it was ok
John Le Carre meets Saul Bellows "Henderson: The Rain King". Except without the pulse quickening of the former and the existential crisis of the later. There was some kick in the narrative about halfway through (noted by a style change which the novel needed desperately. I like the narrator, but even his style got caught in the same thickness and slog this kind of spy novel genre fiction tends to. Some strong moments and characters but the story and writing didn't do enough with them or for them ...more
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Poet, playwright and author Denis Johnson was born in Munich, West Germany in 1949 and was raised in Tokyo, Manila and Washington. He earned a masters' degree from the University of Iowa and received many awards for his work, including a Lannan Fellowship in Fiction (1993), a Whiting Writer's Award (1986), the Aga Khan Prize for Fiction from the Paris Review for Train Dreams, and most recently, th ...more
“As he expressed these ideas he followed them with his eyes, watching them gallop away to the place where they made sense.” 9 likes
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