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Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson

Tree of Smoke (2007)

by Denis Johnson

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In Greene time the American was quiet, maybe ugly - in Johnson time he whirls ambivalently through identities, wise, good, real and 'finally as simply the Fucking American'.

Immersion in this jungle of a book, whether you read it quick (as I did over 5 days) or slow, indexing each of the characters in at least their double identities, will not reveal, I suspect, the exact 'psy ops' afoot, and besides that'll make you as reader just another agent, or bystander grasping for something beyond semantic truth - smoke drift fading.

But Johnson's book fits the times, the encroachment, the posturing, the fucked up minds of our leaders and politicians, and the literary tradition: Tolstoy (even the peace is war, though) Conrad, Mailer - I read a section that's made me re-consider the whole approach to my own life (but can I find it again to copy out - no goddammit, did I dream it?) aware that although Mistah Kurtz probably is dead, Denis Johnson has added a crucial question mark - as we've learnt nothing whatsoever. ( )
  peterbrown | Apr 7, 2014 |
A big, complex, very good novel about Viet Nam. I read it over a long period of time and lost the thread at times, so don't feel I have a good grasp of the narrative, but the characters, the sense of being there, of its being another world were powerful. A fine writer. ( )
1 vote marysargent | Jun 9, 2013 |
Wrong book at the wrong time.
I just didn't get it.
Maybe the moral to the story is not to read a war novel when you're feeling peaceful.

Any of the above could be the reason that I just didn't enjoy the reading experience of an older book by one of my favorite writers. Whatever the reason, I didn't like much about this novel. Yes, there was one of the most intense and gross torture scenes I've ever read, and the letters of a dead man were effective and well-crafted at the book's conclusion, but so much of the book didn't deliver for me. I have such high expectations for anything by Denis Johnson that it’s almost impossible to always reach such a high bar. Another distinct possibility for my displeasure, could be I just didn't want to be immersed in the brutality of Vietnam all over again. Skip Sands and the CIA in the theater of war had some fine writing swirling around them, but it just wasn't a place I wanted to be in my head.

This book has been in my view for a long time, as I used it to hold my computer's monitor up higher. Maybe this demeaning use of a long novel was taking cruel advantage of its thickness AND possibly creating a bad vibe with the emotions of the story. Can an inanimate object harbor ill will? I am willing to take the blame for my disappointment. ( )
1 vote jphamilton | May 21, 2013 |
I listened to this book, and that might have been part of my issue with it. There were simply few transitions between characters' individual stories and it was too easy to get confused. All that said, this is a good book, but a little bit over my head. It felt to me like the characters wildly overreacted to certain events, but it's also possible I just didn't quite understand it. A very dense book that was certainly interesting, but just not quite for me. ( )
  Raven9167 | Apr 13, 2013 |
This large novel is full of surprises and one of the best novels I have read in a long time. It starts out as if it were a noir-ish spy novel, set in Southeast Asia and most of the novel takes place in the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia, but it is much more than a thriller or spy novel or even a literary examination of the ethics of deception. The NY Times named this one of the 10 best books of 2007 and I have to agree. Great, just great. ( )
  nmele | Apr 6, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 57 (next | show all)
The labyrinthine Tree of Smoke is full of hitches, tangents, but it reads exceedingly fast. It suggests a protracted war that moved in an exacting blur.
When a novel’s first words are “Last night at 3:00 a.m. President Kennedy had been killed,” and the rest of it evinces no more feel for the English language and often a good deal less, and America’s most revered living writer touts “prose of amazing power and stylishness” on the back cover, and reviewers agree that whatever may be wrong with the book, there’s no faulting its finely crafted sentences—when I see all this, I begin to smell a rat.
In fact, since the publication of his first novel, in 1983, he has been preoccupied with the paradoxical notions of self-sacrifice and salvation in our modern world—but never before has Johnson’s writing been quite so haunted and harrowing as it is in his massive new novel, twenty-five years in the works.
Johnson's orchestration of these characters' intersecting lives is often graceless — as his last couple of novels have demonstrated, plotting has never been one of his strengths — and he has an unfortunate tendency to embroider their adventures with lots of portentous philosophizing about good and evil and religious faith. His heat-seeking eye for detail and his ability to render those observations in hot, tactile prose, however, immerse us so thoroughly in the fetid world of the war and the even more noxious world of espionage that they effectively erase the book's occasional longueurs.

Johnson not only succeeds in conjuring the anomalous, hallucinatory aura of the Vietnam War as authoritatively as Stephen Wright or Francis Ford Coppola, but he also shows its fallout on his characters with harrowing emotional precision. He has written a flawed but deeply resonant novel that is bound to become one of the classic works of literature produced by that tragic and uncannily familiar war.
Tree of Smoke is as excessive and messy as Moby Dick. Anything further removed from the tucked-up, hospital corners school of British fiction is hard to imagine. It's a big, dirty, unmade bed of a book and, once you settle in you're in no hurry to get out.

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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0374279128, Hardcover)

Amazon Significant Seven, September 2007: Denis Johnson is one of those few great hopes of American writing, fully capable of pulling out a ground-changing masterpiece, as he did in 1992 with the now-legendary collection, Jesus' Son. Tree of Smoke showed every sign of being his "big book": 600+ pages, years in the making, with a grand subject (the Vietnam War). And in the reading it lives up to every promise. It's crowded with the desperate people, always short of salvation, who are Johnson's specialty, but despite every temptation of the Vietnam dreamscape it is relentlessly sober in its attention to on-the-ground details and the gradations of psychology. Not one of its 614 pages lacks a sentence or an observation that could set you back on your heels. This is the book Johnson fans have been waiting for--along with everybody else, whether they knew it or not. --Tom Nissley

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:50:30 -0400)

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"This is the story of William "Skip" Sands, CIA - engaged in Psychological Operations against the Vietcong - and the disasters that befall him. This is also the story of the Houston brothers, Bill and James, young men who drift out of the Arizona desert and into a war where the line between disinformation and delusion has blurred away. In its vision of human folly, this is a story like nothing in our literature."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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