“Johnson’s tenth novel is a stunner: the story of Roland Nair, a rogue intelligence agent looking to make a big score in Sierra Leone amid the detritus and chaos of the post-war-on-terrorism world. Johnson’s sentences are always brilliant, but it is in the interstices, the gray areas of the story, that he really excels.” —David Ulin, Los Angeles Times
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.
In Arua we took rooms at The White Nile Palace Hotel. Here was the palace, but we’d crossed the Nile twenty kilometers ago. We arrived at night and formed no impression of the surrounding neighborhood except by its sounds—goats and cattle, arguments and celebrations. Surveying the parking area and later the tables in the café, I judged we’d come among missionaries and relief workers—Médecins sans Frontières sorts of people with good, big SUVs and clean hiking shoes. The grounds were well-kept and our quarters were comfortable. I hadn’t quite expected that.
At dinner Michael was nowhere in evidence. Davidia and I shared a table with an elderly, exhausted French woman of Arab descent who told us she studied torture. “And once upon a time before this, I spent years on a study of the Atlantic slave trade. Angola. Now it’s an analysis of the practices of torture under Idi Amin. Slavery. Torture. Don’t call me morbid. Is it morbid to study a disease? That’s how we find the cure for it. What is the cause of man’s inhumanity to man? Desensitization. The numbness of the perpetrator. Whether an activity produces pleasure, pain, discomfort, guilt, joy, triumph—before too long the soul grows tired and stops feeling. It doesn’t take long. Not too long at all, and then man becomes the devil, he laughs at his former scruples, he enslaves and tortures without compunction.” The woman’s taut, quivering neck, her mouth opening and closing . . . Halfway through her dessert of ice cream with chocolate sauce, without a word, she got up and left the table.
“Is she coming back?”
“No. She’s paying her bill,” I said.
“She seemed possessed.”
“You attract a certain type, don’t you? Orphans and magicians and circus people. You draw them to you. I don’t know how.”
“I’m interested, and they feel it.”
“Where’s Michael? I haven’t seen him since we checked in.”
“As soon as we dropped our bags on the floor, he went out.”
“I don’t know. ‘Seeking word.’ That’s all he said.”
“More will be revealed.”
• • •
But not revealed immediately. Whatever Michael was working on, it kept him away a lot the next two days. When it wasn’t raining Davidia read airport novels by the pool, in a tropical two-piece with a wraparound skirt, while I sat in the thatched shade with my laptop open on the bar, looking busy. The pool was kidney-shaped. Why? Why shaped like a human organ? Frequent downpours kept it brimming over. People rarely swam in it. An arm’s length above its surface, pairs of mating dragonflies whipped to and fro. Once in a while Davidia unwrapped herself down to her bikini and dipped herself in the water.
For restaurant and poolside music, American country tunes with a dash of rockabilly, the same forty-five-minute tape played all day long.
I wrote to Tina:
Well, no internet this AM at the White Nile Palace (Palace for Whites) Hotel. Writing off-line at the moment. No Wi-Fi here. We have to queue up for internet at the manager’s office.
A light rain began. Davidia left the area with a wave. She had very high, very round breasts. She wore sandals whose red color against her brown feet looked somehow violent. I reached beside me for my coffee and knocked it from the bar, and it shattered all over the tiles. I’d put myself on a seventy-two-hour moratorium—no spirits, no wine, no beer. A somber young waiter with a push mop came to look after the mess.
In its relationship with Emmanuel, the manager, the office computer is sort of a cartoon villain, coming up with some new way to thwart him every time he approaches it—this time it was a warning beep that wouldn’t stop—and his procedure is to start whacking whatever parts look whackable and twisting wires like they’ve been bad little wires and taking hold of the monitor with both hands and shaking the shit out of it, and today he gave the wall plug a good hard kick—not so stupid, really, because you do often get new results around here by wiggling the wall plug. Or snapping it with your finger. The people who work under him all know how to handle the computer just fine, and if the network’s up, they can make it happen, but Emmanuel, he just starts right in on the contraption like he’s carrying out an old vendetta, and I’ve learned not to ask him to try, except for entertainment.
I tried and deleted several ways of getting onto the next topic, and finally wrote—
Have you heard anything from Grant or that Major Kenworth guy, or any of those other boys in Sec 4?
—Section 4, Internal Inquiries, counterintelligence, the spy catchers. They hunt the traitor.
Let me know if anybody comes over from there just to say hi. I’ll tell you what it’s all about later on, when we’re together again.
—and deleted the final sentence and wrote instead, “I’ve put in for an opening over there, to tell the truth,” and deleted to tell the truth, “and if I have a shot at it, if they’re interested in me, they’ll probably do a little snooping.”
• • •
I woke and dressed fast without showering, ridden by a desire, an absolute lust, to get it all done this very moment, plus a feeling I wouldn’t get it done at all. I skipped breakfast and flagged one of the motorbikes waiting outside the hotel, and we traveled as fast as the engine could propel us toward the Catholic radio installation. Gripping my laptop with one hand and my life with the other, I made up my mind not to ride one of these things again. The night’s rain had slicked the road going into town, and quick maneuvers around potholes or out of the way of death sent us gliding in zigzags over the red mud. Bursts of adrenaline drained me and calmed me. The forward charge slowed down as we mounted a long steep hill toward three large towers in a compound of low buildings, the Catholic communications center.
At the gate a uniformed guard searched me, and a laminated security pass went around my neck. The guard walked me over to the nearest of several adobe buildings, and there a kind woman in a nun’s habit led me to a large room and sat me down before one of three computers at a long counter against the wall. She took a chair by the door. For the moment, it was just the two of us. I logged on with a password and immediately logged off.
While I waited, I heard the roar of a soccer game drifting up from the school at the bottom of the hill.
Pretty soon a blue-uniformed Ugandan soldier entered the room. I sensed him coming but stared at the screen until he touched my shoulder and said, “Please come,” and led me to the Secure Communications Environment, the “SC lounge,” or the “SC café.” It looked like the room we’d just left. Only one computer console here.
This place had nothing to do with NATO, except in the way of “courteous exchange,” as it’s called in the business. The safe communications here were an operation of the British, MI4 or 5 or 6 . . . May I reveal a fact? I don’t know how many MIs there are. In any case, it was nothing to do with NIIA. As far as I’d been allowed to know, NATO maintained no safe sites anywhere in Uganda for communications. The Americans like to say “commo”—I think it’s silly. Using my own laptop, I checked my list of e-mails. One from NIIA. I didn’t open it.
Another one, from Tina: a photo taken in a mirror, her face hidden behind the camera and her breasts exposed. Not a word of text.
I sent her what I’d composed off-line, and added:
Nothing has happened since I wrote the above. I’ve spent my time listening to the BBC on a little radio or watching the images of Al Jazeera on the satellite TV, when the TV works. Emmanuel has permanently bested the hotel’s computer and it just sits there half dead. Nobody can use it now. It’s not a communication device anymore, it’s capable of making a few high-pitched noises understood only by itself. Therefore I just took a half hour’s trip across town to the Catholic radio station compound, where they have a media center with three computers & Wi-Fi.
Don’t forget to let me know if you hear from Sec 4.
—and felt I was hitting the thing too hard and deleted the last line and wrote:
I thank you from the bottom of my scrotum for the glimpse of your beauties. I hope I can assume they’re yours.
Nothing From Hamid. I’d expected nothing. It was my turn to talk.
I switched to my own keyboard. As he’d suggested, I didn’t use the American Standard. For a lark I used PGP, and in accordance with Hamid’s wishes I rotated my proxy after every fifteen words:
230K dollars US.
Currently in transit.
Will return to site of previous meeting when we have a deal.
Suggest date exactly 30 days following previous meeting.
Sample product: Basement Elvis Documents Freetown.
NIIA safe site. Check and see.
Don’t answer until the answer’s yes.
Having suggested a date, I heard the clock start ticking. Today was October eleventh—I’d have nineteen days to wrap things up with Michael and find my way back to Freetown. An easy schedule. But Africa wipes its mess with schedules.
I opened the communiqué from my boss:
Let’s not overlook opportunities for filing. Check in daily. I don’t add “when possible.” Check in daily.
No amount of detail is too great. Err on the side of inclusiveness. Give us an abundance to sift through and ponder each day. Every day. Daily.
From this point forward, consider that a mission imperative.
Nothing to report.
—and closed the window.
Denis Johnson is the author of eight novels, one novella, one book of short stories, three collections of poetry, two collections of plays, and one book of reportage. His novel Tree of Smoke won the 2007 National Book Award.