California Literary Review

Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson

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March 7th, 2008 at 9:24 am

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Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson
Tree of Smoke: A Novel
by Denis Johnson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 614 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★★★

Vietnam Under the Spotlights

Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson is the finest novel about Vietnam or the Vietnam War I‘ve read and that includes books like Coming Home by George Davis, One to Count Cadence by James Crumley and The Quiet American by Graham Greene. The novel won the National Book Award and a bunch of other honors and deservedly so.

Trying to assemble a cogent review of this multi-layered elaborate book is difficult, there’s so much going on within so many levels among so many characters over a lengthy period of time. Much like perhaps assessing Light in August or Finnegans Wake, neither of which Johnson’s book resembles other than in the quality of its execution. They are complex sometimes labyrinthine works of art that defy brief examination.

The book tells of William “Skip” Sands of the CIA who is engaged in Psychological Operations against the Vietcong during the early involvement of the U.S. in the war. Sands’ life is often portrayed as a slow-burning internal hell riddled with disaster and sorrow, this further exacerbated by a continual sense of not knowing what’s going on or going to happen or what he’s doing in country in the first place.. This is also the story of a pair of slightly crazy brothers, Bill and James Houston who wander out of the parched Arizona desert region and into a war where disinformation and delusion have merged to become blood relations.

Often written in a quiet, understated style that belies the madness and violence that seep through every aspect of life in this jungle country more than forty years ago, Tree of Smoke subtly hammers the reader with an unceasing rage that is the true nature of war’s insanity. The most mundane of incidents – drunken carousing in Vietnamese villages and cities, or late-night conversions in bamboo huts with local leaders and religious figures and more – all of these are punctuated with live hand grenades rolling across a dirt floor tossed by god knows who in the dark of a humid night insects gone strangely silent and death looming in flickering candle light or subtle intimations of vicious insanity.

To write a novel about a war, a tragic, failed part of this country’s past and a horror show for the people of Vietnam takes guts and confidence in one’s vision and abilities. Tree of Smoke is also about Sands’ uncle, Colonel Francis Sands, a legendary CIA operative; Kathy Jones, a widowed Canadian nurse and Trung, a North Vietnamese operative.

Some have criticized Johnson’s dialogue saying in essence that it isn’t real or believable. I disagree. The Colonel is always worth a listen as exemplified by his riff on Kennedy’s eternal flame at Arlington Cemetery:

“The eternal flame,” the colonel said. “Eternal? If you can kill the man, you sure as hell can kill his flame. The thing is this: We’re all dead in the long run. In the end we’re dirt. Let’s face it, our whole civilization is a layer of sediment. In the end some mongrel barbarian wakes up in the morning and stands with one foot on a rock and the other on the kicked-over vessel of Kennedy’s eternal flame. And that vessel is cold and dead, and that sonofabitch doesn’t know he’s standing on it. He’s just taking a piss in the morning. When I get up in the morning and step behind the tent to break wind and void my bladder, whose grave am I pissing on? – Mr. Hao, is my English too fast? Am I getting across.”

Perhaps this might serve as Johnson’s position statement for this novel.

Each section of the book is set in a period of one year from 1963 opening in the Philippines with the assassination of President Kennedy to 1970, and a conclusion set in 1983. The Tet offensive receives a full and gritty treatment, and the deaths of Martin Luther King and RFK appear as does the fall of Saigon.

Skip Sands works beneath his uncle, Francis X. Sands, known as the Colonel. He, at best, has only a vague notion of what’s going on and what his role in the CIA machinations is. He’s holed up in a large home in the jungle awaiting orders, direction, whatever comes his way while living under an alias and falling in love with Kathy. Meanwhile the Colonel works various double agents and drinks large amounts of whiskey Numerous subsidiary characters orbit around these three lending depth, color and intrigue to the narrative. “We’re on the cutting edge of reality itself,’ says Sgt Jimmy Storm. ‘Right where it turns into a dream.”

Reviews of the book have been mainly positive with exceptions like august Atlantic Monthly reviewer B.R. Myers who criticized the novel, citing perceived failures in prose, dialogue, and characterization. Other critics did not see these flaws, and Tree of Smoke was swiftly cited as one of the Best Books of 2007 by The New York Times, whose reviewer, Jim Lewis, called the book “a massive thing and something like a masterpiece.”

In the end as with any great literary effort perception is reality and is indeed in the mind’s eye of the beholder. Tree of Smoke deserves and demands the time and attention of every serious reader of fiction. As Johnson concludes:

All will be saved. All will be saved.

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