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Tree of Smoke: A Novel by Denis Johnson

Tree of Smoke: A Novel (2007)

by Denis Johnson

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2,015695,110 (3.55)125
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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English (66)  French (2)  Spanish (1)  All languages (69)
Showing 1-5 of 66 (next | show all)
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 |
This was a good ride. Immersive, sweaty, worth a reread one of these days. ( )
  lisapeet | Apr 29, 2018 |
Se me ha hecho muy largo y pesado. ( )
  cuentosalgernon | Jul 5, 2017 |
“And I will give portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and palm trees of trees of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.”

- Joel 2:30-32

"They were born into a land at war. Born into a time of trial that never ends.”

This is the late Mr. Johnson's magnum opus on the Vietnam war. I wish I could say I loved it. The novel begins in 1963, and focuses on William “Skip” Sands, a CIA operative and alternates with two brothers, from Arizona that become soldiers, in southwest Asia. The story follows these characters through 1970 and then revisits them in the early 80s, as broken men. This is closer to Graham Greene, than Matterhorn, a book I absolutely loved. This is a National Book award winner, so maybe I missed certain themes or the author's hidden message but I never fully engaged with the characters. There is still much to admire, the ambition and some fine writing but this overlong ode to a pointless, bitter war just didn't work for me. ( )
  msf59 | Jul 2, 2017 |
Showing 1-5 of 66 (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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