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A Book Review My Way — The Laughing Monsters by Denis Johnson

Let me just say that I’m really digging these books that are barely 200 pages long.  Yes, The Laughing Monsters is another short read.

Here’s the Amazon blurb:

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 of money here during the country’s civil war, and, curious to see whether good luck will strike twice in the same place, Nair has allowed himself to be drawn back to a region he considers hopeless.
Adriko is an African who styles himself a soldier of fortune and who claims to have served, at various times, the Ghanaian army, the Kuwaiti Emiri Guard, and the American Green Berets. He’s probably broke now, but he remains, at thirty-six, as stirred by his own doubtful schemes as he was a decade ago.
Although Nair believes some kind of money-making plan lies at the back of it all, Adriko’s stated reason for inviting his friend to Freetown is for Nair to meet Adriko’s fiancée, a grad student from Colorado named Davidia. Together the three set out to visit Adriko’s clan in the Uganda-Congo borderland—but each of these travelers is keeping secrets from the others. Their journey through a land abandoned by the future leads Nair, Adriko, and Davidia to meet themselves not in a new light, but rather in a new darkness.

On Amazon, it has an average rating of 3.5 based on a grand total of 59 reviews.  Truth is that I’m ambivalent about the book.  I look at some of the reviews and I see truth in what some of the one-star reviewers have to say.  Like “Very disappointing. Thought the author did not put a lot of effort into this one. The characters are stupid and not very interesting. A reader is never really sure of the motives and direction of the characters.”

And I see truth in what some of the five star reviewers have to say.  Like “A morally ambiguous tale of spies, Africa, lust, betrayal—lots of fun stuff. Wonderfully written—feels like jazz riffs.”

Here’s what I liked:  The depictions of Africa, from Sierra Leone to Uganda to Congo and other points in between.  From cities to villages and the dirt roads that connect them.  It’s a fast-paced read with a number of interesting characters.  The characters are put in precarious situations.  It’s a bit of a thrill ride.

Here’s what I didn’t like:  Once again, it’s a book that suddenly shifts how it is told about two thirds of the way through.  I’ll never understand why authors do this.  I have a sneaky suspicion that it has do with finding an easier way to get around some difficulties the author has identified in the telling of the story.  In this book, Johnson starts off by telling the story in the traditional way — third person, past tense, as the events unfold.  Periodically, the narrator interrupts the narrative to describe an email to his girlfriend he has drafted to explain to her what is going on, in the time and context of the events as they are being described.  Then, all of a sudden, at about that two-thirds mark, almost the rest of the story is told in emails he has drafted after everything has happened.  It’s like the end of the story, the thrilling conclusion, is told as a re-cap instead of as part of the flow of the story.  It’s just kind of weird and I don’t understand why the switch was necessary.  Or that it improved the story.

So, eh, I liked it, but I didn’t like the way Johnson finished it.



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