In "The Laughing Monsters," Denis Johnson's kinetic new novel, spies, soldiers of fortune and military attachés charge across West Africa, pausing only to tell lies and swap threats. Hostages are taken. State secrets are offered for sale. A plane is downed — could it have been carrying enriched uranium?
Astride this chaos stands a man who out-machos them all. Michael Adriko committed his first murder before he was 10 and once rescued the president of his native Ghana from certain death. He can make a bomb in the time it takes to scramble an egg: "I hardly have to move from this spot. Just bring me matches, Christmas lights, and sugar."
Or so he claims. Brisk and unpredictable, Johnson's is a story fueled by ambiguities, misdirections and dishonest characters — none more conniving than our narrator, an accomplished fabulist named Roland Nair.
Nair is a 36-year-old Dane with dual U.S. citizenship, and as the novel opens, he's just arrived in present-day Sierra Leone, a country he last visited a decade ago. For reasons that aren't yet revealed, he's due to reunite with Adriko. They're old friends or, more precisely, fellow adventurers. A few years back, they bonded during a near-death experience in Afghanistan.
Making his way to a high-tech safe house, Nair sets the novel's subterfuge in motion, sending an encrypted e-mail to a contact in the Netherlands. Although he doesn't explain the nature of the message, Nair makes clear that its contents are highly sensitive: "I believe that by making this transaction the two of us risked life sentences."
As the hours pass, Nair's back story will grow increasingly complex. He'll soon claim to be a NATO emissary charged with tracking the movements and plans of Adriko, an internationally infamous man of mayhem. On this front, he might actually be telling us the truth. Meanwhile, Nair seems to be simultaneously involved in a treasonous deal that would allow unspecified clients to tap into a network that transmits classified American communications.
For his part, Adriko is bent on recruiting Nair to join him in a separate scam, one that involves the sale of coveted bomb-manufacturing material. A complicating presence is Adriko's fiancée, Davidia, who seems to have special sway over both men. Oh, and then there's the cast of supporting players, dangerous men who have (or are rumored to have) links to Interpol, U.S. special forces, the Israeli Mossad, the CIA and Britain's MI6. (An ultimately disposable spy novel set in a region combating a deadly outbreak of disease could be regarded as insensitive, but the manuscript was finished long before West Africa's current Ebola outbreak.)
The author of the National Book Award-winning novel "Tree of Smoke," Johnson offers a vivid portrayal of the ethical wasteland in which weapons and information are sought and stolen. Quickly paced and teeming with a cast of bargainers, betrayers and bunco artists, "The Laughing Monsters" is the sort of crafty thriller in which the reader is consistently knocked off-balance, trying, failing and trying again to separate heroes from villains.
Kevin Canfield is a writer and critic in New York City.