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Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson
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Tree of Smoke (2007)

by Denis Johnson

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English (58)  French (2)  All languages (60)
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Speaking of John F. Kennedy’ assassination, the Colonel in Denis Johnson’s [Tree of Smoke] says, “The dividing line between light and dark goes through the center of every heart, every soul. There isn’t one of us who isn’t guilty of his death.” For Johnson, the Colonel resides in the same boiling cauldron as Shakespeare’s witches from Macbeth, prophesying the end of tragic circumstances at the beginning of the tale and then woven in throughout the tale to recall what evil lies ahead and to make sense of the evil that has been done along the way. The Colonel learns of Kennedy’s death while in the Philippines, just after loaning his rifle to a young sailor, who uses it to senselessly shoot a monkey out of a tree. That the Colonel is responsible for the weapon that killed the monkey, the parallel to Kennedy’s death, and all of the death that would follow in Vietnam, is clear. The death of the innocent animal, on the heels of Kennedy’s assassination, also lays out the pattern for [Tree of Smoke]: a person acts out of his dark heart, frustrated and confused and alight with anger, and then tries to make sense of it, find salvation, find the light, while banded about on every side by the muddle of life and human endeavor.

After laying the blame for Kennedy’s assassination at humanity’s feet, the Colonel, again doing the work of Shakespeare’s weird sisters, goes on to describe the state of the world at the time, “We’re in a world wide war, have been for close to twenty years. … It’s a covert World War Three. It’s Armageddon by proxy. It’s a contest between good and evil, and its true ground is the heart of every human.” So, it’s not just Kennedy’s murder, it’s really the state of affairs in general, around the globe, good battling with evil for supremacy in the heart of men. Blame for evil, or praise for good, is usually meted out by the populace to those in power, and usually in helpless passivity, viewing the things that happen in the world outside of any control at the personal level. But Johnson focus is keenly aimed at the common man, as all of his characters, even the Colonel, hale from the everyday of life. Their salvation is dependent on personal choices, unequivocally outside the realm of any higher responsibility. And it is redemption in small bits, not in glorious acts but painfully eked out in the microcosms of the day-to-day.

The Colonel, and his nephew, Skip Sands, are at play in the fields of intelligence, the CIA, and Johnson treads the opaque world of Graham Greene. At one point, Skip even muses on whether he is a “quiet American” or “an ugly American,” playing on the title of Greene’s own examination of geo-politics in Indochina, [The Quiet American]. Johnson owes a great deal to Greene for helping to establish the murky, heaving tone of the Colonel and Skip’s portion of the story. For another story line, Johnson uses a missionary with a crisis of faith, again harkening to novels by Peter Matthieson, [At Play in the Fields of the Lord] or Paul Theroux, [The Mosquito Coast]. And Johnson’s view of the raw, wild American soldier in the jungles of Vietnam calls to mind Mailer’s [The Naked and the Dead] or Oliver Stone’s film “Platoon.” Toward the end of the book, a character embarks on a trek into the heart of the jungle to find the Colonel, who may or may not be dead, reminiscent of Conrad’s [Heart of Darkness] or the film version of the story, “Apocalypse Now.” There is a lot of either homage or redux in Johnson’s book, but he saves himself from mimicry with a unique, eloquent voice, cascading away from the ground covered in these other works in provocative stances on the human condition, as communicated by complex and conflicted people who represent the very essence of everyday.

There is a mildly nihilistic feeling about the resolution for all of the characters, as though whatever redemption they manage will not carry them far. Or maybe Johnson was trying to temper any saving grace with the hopeless repetitiveness of human behavior. Near the end of the book, a friend of the Colonel’s quotes Marcus Aurelius in speaking about him, “You may break your heart, but men will go on as before.” That’s the same heart that the Colonel declared was divided between good and evil. So, Johnson provides some hope in the story but leavens it with a healthy pinch of inevitability.

One passage in the book was particularly relevant with the current debate over the use of torture. After the death of one of their sergeants, a platoon apprehends a Viet Cong guerilla. They string him up to a tree, so that he is hanging from his wrists, bound behind him, and then they take turns at beating and mutilating him. The depraved punishment they inflict on their enemy is astonishing, but it is instructive of the weakness that humans have for vengeance, a tendency described more recently by former Vice President Cheney’s defense of the torture green-lighted after the 9/11 attacks. Johnson could not have scripted Cheney any better had he been one of the characters in the book; a dark figure obscured in shadow, manipulating the strings hanging from his hands.

Johnson won the National Book Award and was a Pulitzer finalist for this book, the largest in both depth and scope to that date in his career. But the award is probably more of a reflection of the surprise at Johnson’s ability to drag himself into such new territory. Having never read any of Johnson’s other work, I can’t be sure that’s the case, but the book is not perfect by any means. The passages describing the soldiers and their actions in the war seem a little tired and more than a little cliché, especially in their conversations. And Johnson dawdles setting up some of the plot lines. When he is focused, he’s brilliant, but he loses that focus too often, probably because this epic was a watershed in his writing, and he was finding his way. Again, what saves the book is that Johnson can shift into another gear from one page to the next with his prose and with his vision, descending into strata that quicken even the coldest heart.

Bottom Line: Epic book from a writer better known for his short fiction, and there is some loss of focus for the shift in forum, but a deeply provocative book examining the dividing line between good and evil as it rests in each human heart.

4 bones!!!!! ( )
3 vote blackdogbooks | Dec 22, 2014 |
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 |
Disappointment.
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 |
Showing 1-5 of 58 (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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