Denis Johnson

"Tree of Smoke"

(Reviewed by Leland Cheuk SEP 18, 2007)

“Seaman Houston took himself a few steps nearer, and, from the distance of only a few yards, he saw that the monkey’s fur was very shiny and held a henna tint in the shadows and a blond tint in the light, as the leaves moved above it. It looked from side to side, its breath coming in great rapid gulps, its belly expanding tremendously with every breath like a balloon. The shot had been low, exiting from the abdomen…Seaman Houston walked over to the monkey and laid the rifle down beside it and lifted the animal up in his tow hands, holding its buttocks in one and cradling its head with the other. With fascination, then with revulsion, he realized that the monkey was crying. Its breath came out in sobs, and tears welled out of its eyes when it blinked. It looked here and there, appearing no more interested in him than in anything else it might be seeing. “Hey,” Houston said, but the monkey didn’t seem to hear.

As he held the animal in his hands, its heart stopped beating. He gave it as shake, but he knew it was useless. He felt as if everything was all his fault, and with no one around to know about it, he let himself cry like a child. He was eighteen years old.”

Denis Johnson’s highly anticipated new novel, Tree of Smoke, his sixth, seems booby trapped by its topic: that very well-tread time, place, and war that never was called as such named Vietnam. Really? Another book about the Vietnam War? Even Hollywood stopped rehashing Apocalypse Now! and Full Metal Jacket 15 years ago. Could Tree of Smoke possibly say anything that hasn’t been said before about that jungle, sprinkled tragically in Agent Orange nearly 40 years ago?

Johnson makes his job even tougher by going big on every page or going home. This is an important novel and Johnson knows it. More than a few times, Tree of Smoke feels like the novelistic version of a Hollywood film that brings together all the right actors and all the right screenwriters, directors, and producers for a go-for-broke run for Oscar. The novel runs over 600 pages and is rife with heavy-handed references to the phrase “tree of smoke” in the Bible as well as nods to Graham Greene’s The Quiet American and Lederer and Burdick’s The Ugly American (these books contrasting takes on the late 60s in southeast Asia form the central debate of the novel – are the main characters quiet, and well-intentioned or ugly, pretentious, and isolationist?).

Thus, I didn’t expect anything new to come out of the story of William “Skip” Sands, a spy-in-training engaged in Psychological Operations for the CIA against the Viet Cong, and his larger-than-life intelligence veteran uncle, Colonel Sands. I expected to hear the violins, the bombast, the repeated gongs of Significance played throughout.

What I didn’t expect, however, was how successful Tree of Smoke would be. It is, indeed, a major novel, brimming with symbols, written by an author at the top of his game. Tree of Smoke is to Johnson as Underworld is to DeLillo; both were intentional epics, written by big-time talents about the generation from which they came. Both hit the big thematic notes they wanted, sometimes with subtlety and sometimes without, and neither apologized for going big or going home. Both novels succeed ecstatically and fail spectacularly, many times in the same passages.

The plot is essentially as follows: Skip Sands is given an opportunity to be mentored by his uncle, the Colonel. The Colonel is a man of many theories about intelligence and the geopolitics of the times. He is also a rogue in the eyes of the CIA, knee-deep in the moral greys, unafraid of working with Vietnamese double agents. Skip’s first assignment is in the Manila, where he meets and falls for Kathy Jones, a nurse struggling with her faith in a time of war. Soon the war escalates and the Colonel’s operations become increasingly marginalized. Skip and the Colonel start as the Quiet Americans, working behind the scenes with the natives to achieve seemingly benevolent goals. By the middle of the book, it becomes clear that the Colonel is an Ugly American, isolated and compromised by the blood of war and their own moral flaws. Eventually, the Colonel and his operatives become targets of their very own CIA.

There is also the sub-plot of the brothers’ Houston (Bill and James), who both serve in Vietnam and are affected in more predictable ways. James is a killer who gets honorably discharged after killing a Vietnamese woman. When he returns to the States, he is naturally unmoored, predictably affected by Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Neither of the Houstons are particularly compelling characters and the above passage involving Seaman Bill killing an innocent monkey is the most original episode involving the two brothers.

Ultimately, Tree of Smoke is an epic novel of ideas, beautifully rendered, that debates all the timeless matters (faith, war, and morality) that novels should. But the critics that call Tree of Smoke a bloated, rehashing of a war that has been plenty hashed by other guys like Tim O’Brien and Robert Stone are right as well. It is both obvious and opaque. Like smoke.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 125 reviews

First chapter excerpt of Tree of Smoke at The New York Times

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About the Author:

Denis JohnsonDenis Johnson was born in 1949 in Munich, Germany and was raised in Tokyo, Manilla and Washinton. Johnson had a lengthy love affair with chemical substances, which started with rum at the age of 14. His family was stationed in the Philippines, where there was no such thing as under age. When he was 21 the first time he entered the psych ward to recover from alcohol abuse. Drugs followed, including heroin. While a student at the University of Iowa, he drank regularly with Raymond Carver. And he drank through his first marriage.

Johnson begin his career writing poems. He had started a novel in college and in an effort to control his additions, he finished that first novel, Angels, in 1983, which won a Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction and earning warm reviews from the likes of Philip Roth and Don DeLillo. He continued to produce novels to small acclaim, leaving his reclusive northern-Idaho home only to take on journalistic assignments in places like Somalia, Afghanistan, and Liberia. Jesus's Son, a batch of stark, semi-autobiographical lowlife sketches from his days as an addict, was sent to his agent out of desparation -- he was was facing a second divorce and $10,000 fine from the IRS.

He is the recipient of a Lannan Fellowship and a Whiting Writer's Award, among many other honors for his work. Playwriting is the most recent phase in his long career.

Mostly a recluse, Denis Johnson lives in North Idaho. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014