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Tree of Smoke: A Novel Paperback – September 2, 2008

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Patton is a fine character actor. His performances in A Mighty Heart and Inventing the Abbotts made a notable presence in otherwise unremarkable roles. His reading of Johnson's baroque Vietnam novel, though, will probably not feature highly in future editions of his résumé. Johnson's tale of shadowy soldiers and spooks irrevocably changed by the unending war in Southeast Asia is rendered by Patton in a drill sergeant's muscular whisper, complete with carefully rendered impressions of characters—American, Filipino and Vietnamese—some of which verge on parody. The effort and thought put into his reading is clear, but the results are underwhelming, bordering on unpleasant. Twenty-three hours of so mannered a performance begins to grate on the nerves, distracting from Johnson's otherwise engrossing novel.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 720 pages
  • Publisher: Picador; Reprint edition (September 2, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312427743
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312427740
  • Product Dimensions: 5.4 x 1.3 x 8.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (198 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #186,396 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

99 of 102 people found the following review helpful By wbjonesjr1 on August 3, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Normally the average Amazon customer rating on a book matters to me lots and I am quicker to read the customer reviews than editorial reviews. But the relatively negative reaction to Tree of Smoke has left me perplexed. I've seen far far less powerful less well-written books get far better ratings.

I found Tree of Smoke extraordinary. To me it was a book that included unique, compelling characters; an exciting plot line (albeit certainly far from easy to understand); and outstanding writing used to describe generally terrible circumstances. I agree with reviewers suggesting the book reminds them of Heart of Darkness and Catch 22 - and believe it does so with remarkable originality and beauty

I think perhaps what made this book unappealing to many made it great literature and worthy of National Book award for me. There is no clear "hero" to the story and if there are any heroes (eg the Colonel??; the Houston brothers?? Skip Sands??) they are all really far from being your "prince charming types" (i.e all heavy boozers; all at rim of law etc). There is also no "happy ending". What there is is relentless tension from beginning to end, told from perspective of characters that remind me of what folks that were in Vietnam might actually have been thinking

I urge readers to try Tree of Smoke, but enjoying it requires tackling it with a "i am reading a complex allegory" mindset, not a "great summer read"
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63 of 73 people found the following review helpful By RedRocker on February 24, 2008
Format: Hardcover
I was very disappointed. I'd read Angels years ago and had wanted to get back to Johnson. My qualms are not with the writing--Johnson is a gifted stylist and you must be careful not to gloss over certain passages or paragraphs which are dense philosophical insights wrapped in great prose and at times poetry. Nor with the politics--those dismissing the book for its lack of aviation verisimilitude or because it wasn't as good a Vietnam book as some others, are evaluating an apple as an orange.

My disappointment is with the characters and the plot. This is at heart an intellectual work: it ruminates and dazzles, but the characters remain distant and abstract, and each time I became caught up in a subplot, it would be discarded. It was a novel that made me think--but I also wanted to feel.

Skip Sands is the fulcrum around which the novel moves, but I never was able to fully grasp his character--or care about him. And, while he thinks a lot, he doesn't do very much.

Take my review, however, with a grain of salt. I've seen some reviewers refer to Tolstoy, and I have to admit, I felt the same way about Sands as I did about Pierre in War and Peace.
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49 of 57 people found the following review helpful By M. Bromberg on September 23, 2008
Format: Paperback
"Tree of Smoke" is big, convoluted, and meant to be consumed whole in a long read, immersing the reader in the reflections of a fun-house mirror, the military's disintegrating role in Vietnam. There's a flood of imagery, an exhausting descriptive style that one appreciates or soon is overwhelmed by. In its 600 pages are characters that, true to the times, seem to be aimless, or at least helpless in the way of unfolding disaster.

Johnson has some heady company in writing about the watershed event of the 1960s, but at this remove from the events of 1963-1970 (the span of time covered in "Tree of Smoke") Vietnam is less a place of combat than a canvas to spread his cast of characters. Reviewers and many readers were dazzled by the novel's hallucinogenic tone ("whacked-out" was another positive accolade) in which plot is secondary to the effect of the author's spiraling prose.

Like many of its characters, the novel loses its way. The intent is to convey the undeniably chaotic forces at work in this unwinnable war; every man must find reasons for his survival, or work toward his redemption. Some find nothing but the heart of darkness. But survival or redemption requires a moral certainty, and here there is none. The characters only become more obscured in their jungle hell, and the Vietnam war oddly recedes from view as the novel progresses. The war remains central to the action, but as a refraction of the country's moral dilemma. For a novel with so much technical detail, which is considerable, Johnson manages to make Vietnam into a Hollywood abstraction.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Ryan on December 27, 2010
Format: Paperback
This is a powerful, well-written book, and one of the best I've ever read about the Vietnam war, though it's less about the direct experience of war, and more about the madness, surreality, and moral confusion that swirls around war's fire (the "tree of smoke"). Johnson is a writer's writer. His prose is poetic and psychologically rich, full of passages I that I sometimes rewound my audiobook just to hear again. His dialogue and description are often lifelike, surreal, profound, and quotable all at once. The book's central figure, The Colonel, an old school warrior with a blunt-spoken, avuncular manner and a powerful (and renegade) sense of personal mission, is one of the most colorful characters I've come across in a while. Johnson's window into the world of counterintelligence offers a rich perspective on a United States driven by a sense of post-World War Two clarity and purpose that becomes more mythical and mirage-like as his characters find themselves foundering in uncertainty.

Read the sequence about teenage American soldiers newly arrived in Vietnam and perhaps you'll understand what I mean. They act exactly like you'd expect teenagers to, immature, without a clue what's going on, but determined to maintain their teenage bravado, even as the veteran soldiers mess with them. These scenes are effective, darkly funny, and totally believable; after reading them, I wondered how so many other authors managed to get teenage American soldiers so *wrong*.

However, there's no denying that Tree of Smoke will repel some readers. It's a depressing book, and portrays a war seemingly lost in the souls of those conducting it, as their convictions drive them into murky moral paradoxes and places of existential isolation.
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