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Tree of Smoke (2007)

by Denis Johnson

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2,104725,325 (3.56)134
The lives of Skip Sands, a spy-in-training engaged in psychological operations against the Vietcong, and brothers Bill and James Houston, young men who drift out of the Arizona desert into a war, intertwine in a novel of America during the Vietnam War.

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» See also 134 mentions

English (69)  French (2)  Spanish (1)  All languages (72)
Showing 1-5 of 69 (next | show all)
Well written. Fascinating. It follows a handful of lives that intersect in Vietnam during the US war-invasion. In a mostly good way its a self-involved epic. Occasionally offensive. ( )
  reg_lt | Feb 7, 2020 |
I loved the writing and I felt right at home following the characters around in Denis Johnson's Vietnam War setting, but the story simply wasn't for me. Tree of Smoke gives me a Catch-22 vibe, a story I eventually learned to love but is a hard book to relate to, and there's a little bit of that going on here. Other reviews have suggested that more-than-a-passing awareness of Vietnamese history in a mid-20th century context is required to appreciate what this novel is trying to say. I can certainly understand that. ( )
  Daniel.Estes | Jan 27, 2020 |
"There was once a war in Asia that had among its tragedies the fact that it followed World War II, a modern war that had somehow managed to retain or revive some of the glories and romances of earlier wars. This Asian war however failed to give any romances outside of hellish myths.

Among the denizens to be twisted beyond recognition--even, or especially, beyond recognition by themselves, were a young Canadian widow and a young American man who alternately thought of himself as the Quiet American and the Ugly American, and who wished to be neither, who wanted instead to be the Wise American, or the Good American, but who eventually came to witness himself as the Real American and finally simply as the Fucking American.

That's me..."
--Denis Johnson, from Tree of Smoke ( )
  ralphpalm | Nov 11, 2019 |
An immediate reread is happening. ( )
  Adammmmm | Sep 10, 2019 |
I'm a Denis Johnson fan. I enjoyed a lot of this, but it just seemed to go on and on for no apparent reason at some points. The book was so all over the place that I found myself lost quite often in terms of who was who and the storyline. Not quite of a slog as Catch 22, but it was approaching that territory. I wanted to like it more than I did because I like the author and, of course, there was a lot of hype surrounding the book. Tree of Smoke had its moments and I'm glad I read it, but ultimately it was just too long and disorganized for a better review. ( )
  akissner | Aug 1, 2018 |
Showing 1-5 of 69 (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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The lives of Skip Sands, a spy-in-training engaged in psychological operations against the Vietcong, and brothers Bill and James Houston, young men who drift out of the Arizona desert into a war, intertwine in a novel of America during the Vietnam War.

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