And for his next trick, Johnson delivers a taut, Conrad-by-way-of-Chandler tale about a spy who gets too close to the man he’s shadowing in Africa.
Johnson may be the hardest major American writer to pin down:
He’s written potent short stories about down and outers (Jesus’ Son,
1992), a ruminative domestic novel (The Name of the World, 2000), a
hefty Vietnam epic (Tree of Smoke, 2007) and a hard-boiled noir (Nobody
Move, 2009). With this novel, narrated by a seen-it-all NATO agent, Johnson
revisits some of the itches previously scratched in Tree of Smoke,
particularly the moral compromises that are inextricably linked to war and
spycraft. Roland arrives in West Africa with orders to connect with Michael
Adriko, a former anti-terrorist colleague who’s apparently deserted. Roland is
no exemplar of moral upstanding himself: In Sierra Leone, he cuts a side deal to
sell NATO secrets, self-medicates with alcohol and prostitutes, and once he
finally connects with Michael, falls for Michael’s fiancee, Davidia. Michael
wants Roland to join him in a scheme to sell a chunk of unprocessed radioactive
material, a plan that takes them deeper into the continent, to Michael’s hometown
in the Congo. (The novel’s title refers to a mountain range there.) As in any
good double-agent story, Johnson obscures whose side Roland is really on, and
Roland himself hardly knows the answer either: Befogged by frustrations with
bureaucracy, his lust for Davidia and simple greed, he slips deeper into
violence and disconnection. Johnson expertly maintains the heart-of-darkness
mood, captured in Roland’s narration as well as in the increasingly emotional
messages he sends to his lover and colleague back home.
Johnson offers no new lessons about how dehumanizing post-9/11 lawlessness can be, but his antihero’s story is an intriguing metaphor for it.