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


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 720 pages
  • Publisher: Picador; Reprint edition (September 2, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312427743
  • ASIN: B002KHMZGS
  • Product Dimensions: 8.1 x 5.4 x 1.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (177 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #707,529 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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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Customer Reviews

It's one of the best-written books I've ever read.
Amazon Customer
Much of this far-too-long novel is tedious although occasionally brief passages stand out but they are too few and far between.
H. F. Corbin
I MADE myself read three chapters, thinking that the book just had to get better.
SingingOwl

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

71 of 73 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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53 of 63 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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43 of 51 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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Format: Hardcover
The novel begins with the senseless, needless and heartless shooting of a tiny, wild monkey, "not much bigger than a Chihuahua dog", by eighteen years old Seaman Apprentice William Houston. He was walking in the Grande Island of the Philippines, looking for a wild boar to hunt. He doesn't find a wild boar. He sees a harmless and helpless monkey in a tree, instead, and shoots it with a .22-caliber rifle. When the fatally wounded monkey falls to the ground, he picks it up. Johnson writes, "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." When I read the brief episode, the brutal and senseless killing of a harmless wild animal which was foraging for food and minding its own business - five paragraphs in all - I was quite outraged, at first. But soon it dawned upon me that, after all, this novel was about the Vietnam War; and wasn't the Vietnam War needless, senseless, brutal and outrageous also? I calmed down and continued to read.

The novel is about two brothers named William Houston, a Seaman Apprentice, and James Houston who serve in the military in the Vietnam War, and a CIA agent named Skip Sands, and his uncle Colonel Francis Sands, and another intelligence officer named Storm, a military man from South Vietnam named Hao and a spy from North Vietnam named Trung, and a Canadian aid worker named Kathy Jones, a nurse who goes to Vietnam after her husband, a priest, is killed. Because of the author's digressive, ruminating and reflective style, the story at times is difficult to follow. The length of the novel (614 pages) is a hindrance also.
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