Denis Johnson’s war

Vietnam in Tree of Smoke
By JOHN FREEMAN  |  November 6, 2007


Tree of Smoke | by Denis Johnson | Farrar, Straus and Giroux | 624 pages | $27
Denis Johnson has given us so many maimed and suffering souls in the past 25 years, he could fill a trauma ward. We’ve met men and women hollowed out by domestic loss (The Name of the World), drug use (Jesus’ Son), and failed suicide attempts (Resuscitation of a Drowned Man) — not to mention the end of the world (Fiskadoro). Now, entering his 60s, Johnson gives us his “apocalypse now”: a big, slow-motion epic about America’s experience in Vietnam. Even if you think you’re done with Vietnam novels, Tree of Smoke could change your mind — it belongs on the shelf next to Tim O’Brien, Larry Heinemann, and Stephen Wright. Not only does it re-create the jungle’s ooze and the paranoid warble of a war being micro-managed by the CIA, it encapsulates the long horrible fallout in prose as good as any Johnson has written yet. (It’s been nominated for the National Book Award, whose winners will be announced Wednesday, November 14.)

The story has a large cast of characters, the most important of whom are Skip Sands and his storied uncle, the Colonel. Both wind up in Vietnam — one having already proved himself a hero, the other desperate to do so as a CIA operative. Skip’s view of war and the US military is forever changed when he witnesses the assassination of a priest in the Philippines by the CIA. His experience in Vietnam goes south from there.

We get this type of turning point again and again. One by one, Johnson bends his characters over the wooden bench of his prose and breaks their innocence. In one early scene, a soldier hikes into the jungle and shoots a monkey just because he can. Then he freaks out. “ ‘Jesus Christ,’ ” he shouts at the convulsed, dying animal, “as if it might do something about its embarrassing and hateful condition.”

In Johnson’s vision, that irrational episode becomes emblematic of US involvement in the war. The novel begins on the day of Kennedy’s assassination, with hardcore military types in tears, and sidewinds luxuriantly, in Johnson’s most robust four-barreled tone, into the 1980s, where some of its characters wash up brittle and embittered. There’s a Canadian nurse who loses her missionary husband; there’s a South Vietnamese envoy whose fate gets bounced around with that of his American minders. There are also two brothers, Bill and James Huston, whose experience in the country is terribly familiar in its random brutality.

Although Johnson’s characters have gotten banged up over the years — Tree of Smoke even carries one of them forward from his debut novel, Angels — this book showcases his mastery of genres. Ten years ago he published a noir; with Tree of Smoke he’s written a thriller. The plot is braided within an inch of its life. Its prose has been put on steroids and fed a diet of red meat.

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