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Denis Johnson’s heart beats for the lowlifes and fuck-ups, drunks and speed freaks, the losers who are on their last score and the scavengers feeding on the edges of foreign wars. His failures have a way of talking like poets, and, once in a while, they commit acts of grace. In the short story “Emergency,” from the 1992 collection Jesus’ Son, a man shows up at the hospital with a hunting knife lodged in one eye. While the doctors stand around worrying, a doped-up orderly named Georgie goes into the OR and comes out with the blade in his hand. Everything’s okay: vitals normal, reflexes check out. “There’s nothing wrong with the guy,” a nurse says. “It’s one of those things.” At the end of the story, an AWOL soldier trying to hitchhike to Canada asks Georgie what he does for a living. “I save lives,” he says. When Jesus’ Son was turned into a movie, Johnson played the guy with the knife — Jesus would have called it a beam — in his eye. This could be a comment on the nature of authorship, although something tells me that he just thought it was funny.

Toxic Schizophrenia, by Tim Noble & Sue Webster. Courtesy the artists and Blain|Southern, London.

Toxic Schizophrenia, by Tim Noble & Sue Webster. Courtesy the artists and Blain|Southern, London.

Johnson’s newest is The Laughing Monsters (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25), a thriller narrated by Roland Nair, a spy of indeterminate nationality who has been sent by NATO intelligence to Sierra Leone to meet up with his old buddy Michael Adriko. Michael is a handsome, graceful ex–child soldier currently AWOL from a U.S. Special Forces unit commanded by the father of Davidia St. Claire, his fiancée. (Johnson has never been much for female characters, and gorgeous Ph.D. dropout Davidia is the only false note in this plausibly improbable chain of events.) Nair is supposed to be collecting intel on Michael, but instead Michael enlists him in a deal that involves selling phony uranium to the Mossad.

Nair is a drunk. He’s also something of an amateur anthropologist. He, Michael, and Davidia catch a flight to Kampala, where they board a crowded bus to Arua. The passengers

smelled of liquor and urine and armpit. Michael now placed himself among them, resuming the mantle of African poverty — the way a civilized African does, relaxing the shoulders and calming the hands and letting down the veil over his heart.

The bus’s woman conductor stood in the aisle and addressed us, giving us her name and town and then bowing her head to pray out loud for one full minute in the hope this journey wouldn’t kill us all. She invited everyone to turn to the next passenger and wish him or her the same thing, and we did, fare ye well, may this journey not be your last, although one of those journeys, surely, will send us — or whichever parts of us can be collected afterward — to the grave.

The grave threatens to open more than once. In the market in Arua, Michael and Nair show two South African middlemen the bogus uranium. One of the South Africans pulls a knife, and Nair stands by, useless, as Michael is stabbed to the bone. Undaunted, the trio sneak into the Democratic Republic of the Congo; the plan is for the happy couple to wed in Michael’s ancestral village on New Water Mountain. This optimistic itinerary is delayed, first by the Congolese army, then by the Green Berets. “There’s no sense calling it a mess until we see how it all turns out,” Nair writes to his girlfriend. “Sometimes you just get stuck. That’s Africa. Then you’re on your way again without any idea what happened, and that’s Africa too.”

On the mountain, Nair meets a white missionary who explains that Michael’s village is refusing a medical evacuation. The new water is toxic, but the village’s queen — a buzz-cut lunatic named La Dolce who rules from a wooden chair that dangles from the treetops — won’t let them go. Nair arrives in time to see Michael attempting a coup by hacking at La Dolce’s throne with a machete, but the rebellion only seems to make her stronger. Nair can’t get home without Michael, so he spends the night passing a gourd of fermented plantain and sugar cane with three cattle herders who “have the puffy look of corpses floating in formalin.” Davidia has long since gone home.

Like Nobody Move, Johnson’s last book, The Laughing Monsters is a quick-and-dirty genre read. (He’s been blowing off steam ever since conquering the quagmire of the 600-page Tree of Smoke in 2007.) But while Nobody Move was all zingers and grindhouse fun, The Laughing Monsters echoes with real violence and despair. One can’t help but recall Johnson’s own frustrated, terrified reportage from Liberia’s civil war. He crossed paths with the small boys’ unit. He tried to bribe the wrong people. A man being tortured begged him for his life. He met Charles Taylor. But by the time all that happened, Johnson had long since unraveled. It was the sheer impossibility of getting a simple ride across the border that did it. “My parents raised me to love all the earth’s peoples,” he wrote. “Three days in this zone and I could only just manage to hold myself back from screaming Niggers! Niggers! Niggers! until one of these young men emptied a whole clip into me.” Before The Laughing Monsters ends, Nair calls Michael the same name. It spumes like lava, the last desperate gasp of uncomprehending white panic.

The rough sentimentality Johnson often has at his disposal is missing from these pages. I won’t say whether Nair and Michael make it down from New Water Mountain alive. It hardly matters. Johnson’s characters have found something like salvation in the prefab pits of Phoenix and up the California coast, and even, perversely, in the jungles of Vietnam. In Africa, though, the most they can do is cheat death.

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