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Tree of Smoke: A Novel Hardcover – September 4, 2007
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Top Customer Reviews
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"
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.
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.Read more ›
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.Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
The good news is this book contains some masterful prose. I really wanted it to grab me, but after 350 pages I put it aside. Read morePublished 4 days ago by Beth N
Another excellent book by Denis Johnson. I'm so happy to have discovered this author.
I felt like I was missing something the entire way through. After a couple hundred pages I figured the author was primarily trying to elicit the sense of chaos that was Viet Nam. Read morePublished 18 days ago by betweenthelines
For one reason or another, Denis Johnson has never been able to enter the mainstream literary realm, which might be for the best. Read morePublished 22 days ago by Scott Collins
War is brutal, and so is this book. Very hard to follow often, because so many characters are drunk or high or stung out. Conversations are tough. Read morePublished 1 month ago by puzzleman
It's a deep, complex, funny, tragic novel--sometimes a bit too mythical for its own good. The prose style is amazing--quite the equal of Faulkner. Read morePublished 3 months ago by Jeffrey
A surprise for my dad. He recommends this book highly.. has read it many times!Published 4 months ago by Molly M. Macy
This is the finest book about the Vietnam era that I have ever read. Johnson is a brilliant writer and his characters are complex reflections of the American psyche let loose on... Read morePublished 6 months ago by D. Witscher
This book is not for a casual reader: it's long and convoluted and at times confusing due to a very sprawling plot. But it is astoundingly well written and intriguing. Read morePublished 8 months ago by Julia Eicher