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Tree of Smoke: A Novel Hardcover – September 4, 2007
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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
From Publishers Weekly
If this novel, Johnson's first in nearly a decade, is-as the promo copy says-about Skip Sands, it's also about his uncle, a legendary CIA operative; Kathy Jones, a widowed, saintly Canadian nurse; Trung, a North Vietnamese spy; and the Houston brothers, Bill and James, misguided GIs who haunt the story's periphery. And it's also about Sgt. Jimmy Storm, whose existence seems to be one long vision quest. As with all of Johnson's work-the stories in Jesus' Son, novels like Resuscitation of a Hanged Man and Fiskadoro-the real point is the possibility of grace in a world of total mystery and inexplicable suffering. In Johnson's honest world, no one story dominates. For all the story lines, the structure couldn't be simpler: each year, from 1963 (the book opens in the Philippines: "Last night at 3:00 a.m. President Kennedy had been killed") to 1970, gets its own part, followed by a coda set in 1983. Readers familiar with the Vietnam War will recognize its arc-the Tet offensive (65 harrowing pages here); the deaths of Martin Luther King and RFK; the fall of Saigon, swift and seemingly foreordained. Skip is a CIA recruit working under his uncle, Francis X. Sands, known as the Colonel. Skip is mostly in the dark, awaiting direction, living under an alias and falling in love with Kathy while the Colonel deals in double agents, Bushmills whiskey and folk history. He's a soldier-scholar pursuing theories of how to purify an information stream; he bloviates in gusts of sincerity and blasphemy, all of it charming. A large cast of characters, some colorful, some vaguely chalked, surround this triad, and if Tree of Smoke has a flaw, it is that some characters are virtually indistinguishable. Given the covert nature of much of the goings-on, perhaps it is necessary that characters become blurred. "We're on the cutting edge of reality itself," says Storm. "Right where it turns into a dream." Is this our last Vietnam novel? One has to wonder. What serious writer, after tuning in to Johnson's terrifying, dissonant opera, can return with a fresh ear? The work of many past chroniclers- Graham Greene, Tim O'Brien, the filmmakers Coppola, Cimino and Kubrick, all of whom have contributed to our cultural "understanding" of the war-is both evoked and consumed in the fiery heat of Johnson's story. In the novel's coda, Storm, a war cliché now way gone and deep in the Malaysian jungle near Thailand, attends preparations for a village's sacrificial bonfire (consisting of personal items smashed and axed by their owners) and offers himself as "compensation, baby." When the book ends, in a heartbreaking soliloquy from Kathy (fittingly, a Canadian) on the occasion of a war orphan benefit in a Minneapolis Radisson, you feel that America's Vietnam experience has been brought to a closure that's as good as we'll ever get.
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Top customer reviews
An edit: as a collector of vintage military firearms, I deeply appreciated Johnson's deft skill in describing weapons. Not many writers do their homework on this. He did.
I have frequently picked up award winners like this one (National Book Award for fiction in 2007) and have found them a mixed crop, as could be reasonably expected. I met some good writers this way, and I have been disappointed a lot as well. (Maybe most of all by the fairly recent German Nationaler Buchpreis.)
Where is Denis Johnson in this scenario? I would say, on the 'not bad' shelf, but not quite on the 'great' shelf. What have we got? A Vietnam novel, always a subject that interests me. Actually, there is a broader scope, it goes back to the Philippines with roots into WW2.
The 'story' is a multiplicity of stories, you can read each chapter as a short story if you want, but they are all interconnected and they span a time line of 20 years. Each story is in itself fairly simple, none has a traditional 'ending', I guess because real life does not offer stories with an ending.
You have a multiplicity of characters from all sides, but the main theme is taken from Graham Greene's Quiet American. Greene's 'hero' Pyle's real life model Lansdale has a cameo appearance here. That book is even quoted by one of the characters (a Canadian missionary; she also mentions the 'Ugly American', a quite different story, which Johnson's hero misunderstands.)
The writing is deceptively simple, the plot is more complex. Once in a while the simple writing develops special charms, when I have to chuckle over an observation or admire a simile.
'Are you sober? Slightly.'
Not knowing anything about the author before starting this book, I looked around here in amazon among the other reviews and also looked up information on his other books. It seems, Johnson has a reputation for writing under the influence, or let's say, dreamworlds are part of his world. Actually, more often this text here is more sober than one would wish it to be, though most of his protagonists are not sober quite a lot of their time.
What does the title mean? It is from Joel 2,30, and refers to the judgement day. My English version of the Bible has it as 'columns of smoke', but apparently 'trees' is an accurate translation of the Hebrew text. As you might have guessed, out secret service heroes use the term for one of their clandestine operations.
What did Greene write about Pyle, in the words of the journalist who is narrating the story (Michael Caine in the recent movie)? I never knew a man who had better motives for the trouble that he caused. The problem with the progress of history is that even these simple categories get blurred.