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Vietnam: Portraits from a Tragedy

Tree of Smoke

by Denis Johnson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 614 pp., $27.00

1.

Tree of Smoke is an ambitious, long, dense, daunting novel sited at the heart of a great American evil, the Vietnam War. It’s unusual—a gripping yet essentially plotless novel consisting of intercut segments of the lives of people caught up in the war, concentrating on four American men and a Canadian woman. Vietnamese characters appear in the montage as well, most of them collaborationists of one sort or another. In Tree of Smoke, which has been in the making for ten years, Denis Johnson is engaged in a dead serious attempt fully to apprehend the whole dreadful business, and in his evocations of settings and events he demonstrates real authority. Like the war itself, Tree of Smoke delivers an intense experience of loss, shame, futility, confusion—all without benefit of editorializing. And this novel arrives just as grotesque revisionist interpretations of the Vietnam War are brought to bear in the public discourse about our present bloody adventure in Iraq.

Johnson has written six previous novels, three books of poetry (his work has been likened to W.S. Merwin’s), plays, and journalism (he might be called a conflict journalist, given the locations he’s chosen to report from). He has a following, based partly, by my guess, on a certain attractive heedlessness in his prose. His most celebrated works are Jesus’ Son, a collection of short stories, and Fiskadoro, a post-apocalyptic novel. Jesus’ Son, a sort of pilgrim’s regress into drink, drugs, and spiritual suffering, is talismanic for many of the baby-boom generation. Johnson might be considered late Beat, in the manner of post–On the Road Kerouac. He has said that he wants to be understood as a Christian writer. In his earlier works he deals with monumental disillusion, cultural disgust, questing, and excess, in often highly poetical language.

In Tree of Smoke, the main characters tracked through the war are two working-class brothers from the South-west, Bill Houston, a Navy lifer, and his younger brother James, an army volunteer; two CIA officers, Colonel—as he is always called—Francis X. Sands, a man in his forties, and his young nephew, William Skip Sands, a recruit who has been directly assigned to him; and Kathy Jones, the youngish widow of a missionary murdered by guerrillas in the Philippines who persists in her work with a children’s relief agency in South Vietnam after leaving the Philippines. The stories of these people, the principals, as well as those of many of the subordinate characters, are told in free indirect voice—we have internal points of view provided across a population of players almost Tolstoyan in its sweep. There is one significant exception to this practice: the colonel (lowercase c is used by the author except when the colonel is being addressed) appears only through the perceptions of others. Still, we do learn a good deal, if not nearly enough, about this devious and powerful man.

Each year from 1963 to 1970 and then 1983 is used as an envelope into which selected slices of the lives of our characters are put. At the center of the narrative of lives is the colonel. He is there, somewhere, from start to finish. Following a brilliant military career, he has, in his posting to the CIA, contrived a zone of autonomy of his own in which he can concern himself with assassinations, disinformation, double agents, a grandiose scheme to revolutionize the collection of intelligence, and another to destroy the massive Vietminh tunnel system.

The reader sees these various projects in silhouette only, but it’s clear that none of them comes to fruition. Throughout the war, Skip Sands is bound to the sole task of collating file card information for the colonel in a secure villa in the Vietnamese countryside. The Houston brothers survive everything—James a battlefield debacle caused by a malfunction in one of the colonel’s schemes—and then return to Arizona to screw up their lives with alcohol, drugs, and petty crime: the transition is seamless. Skip Sands, a depressive with scholarly inclinations (he has a master’s in comparative literature), is in a state of spiritual disrepair, as is the widow Kathy Jones, with whom he is glancingly intimate a few times.

No characters are more than obliquely embroiled with one another. Nobody connects. The war grinds on and down. Kathy Jones persists in her relief work, survives the crash of an orphan airlift flight she has helped organize; then she goes home. The colonel disappears. Skip Sands quits the agency and drifts into straight criminal undertakings elsewhere in Asia. The colonel’s subaltern, Jimmy Storm, devotes himself to an obsessive hunt for the colonel’s body. The war is lost. And remarkably, despite the length of the time covered, the multiplicity of characters, the absence of a central narrator, and the incompleteness of the lives presented, Tree of Smoke achieves a feeling of aesthetic wholeness.

2.

Denis Johnson is a formidable prose writer, and his book is composed in a plain, straightforward, efficient style. Understatement rules. The physical experience of daily life in tropical Asia is kept fresh, page to page. The dialogue is convincing, neatly adapted to the particularities of the widely different characters. The moments of black comedy that can emerge even amid the worst miseries of war are deftly captured. The poetical style of Johnson’s earlier work is here set well aside, although a lyric temptation does occasionally seize his writing hand. “Each day’s end stole the light from her heart, then came the night’s sorrowing madness, waking, weeping, thinking, reading about Hell…. ‘Each day kicks more room in your heart….'” This doesn’t happen often.

Denis Johnson is at his very best in the portraits of the two bottom-dog Houston brothers and in depicting their impoverished underclass culture. This is all superb: the dialogue, locale, descriptions of mundane cruelty, berserk masculinity, mores, the suffering of women in that milieu. Here is a masterful, flowing passage:

January came and nearly went before Bill Houston found work in the rural environs outside Tempe, near Phoenix. He took a room on South Central Street he could pay for by the day, week, or month, and bused back and forth. At 10:00 p.m. each Tuesday through Saturday he arrived in darkness at the gates of Tri-City Redimix, a sand-and-gravel outfit, for his duties as night cleanup man. By ten-thirty the last of the second shift had left and he tossed aside his mandatory hard hat and presided over fifteen acres of desert—mountains of crushed rocks sorted by size, so that each mountain was made bewilderingly of the same-sized thing, from fist-sized stones down to sand. From one hopper leaked a thread of fine dust that made a pile at the end of a tunnel some twenty feet long; for each shovelful he crept down its tight length toward a distant lightbulb burning in a hemisphere of wire mesh, holding his breath and approaching, a mist of dust exploding in slow motion when he jabbed the blade into the pile, backing out step by step carrying the one shovelful and tossing it to the chilly currents circling the earth. He washed the concrete troughs under the crushers’ conveyor belts with a violent fire hose and scraped each one clean with a flat-nose shovel.

The nights were wild with stars, otherwise empty and cold. For warmth he kept fifty-five-gallon drums full of diesel-soaked sand burning around the place. He made a circuit among the maze of conveyor belts under gargantuan crushers and was never done. The next evening the same belts, the same motions, even some of the same pebbles and rocks, it stood to reason, and the same cold take-out burger for lunch at the dusty table in the manager’s trailer at 2:00 a.m.; washing his hands and face first in the narrow john, his thick neck brown as a bear’s, sucking water up his nostrils and expelling the dust in liverish clumps. Not long after his lunch the roosters alone on neighboring small farms began to scream like humans, and just before six the sun arrived and turned the surrounding aluminum rooftops to torches, and then at six-thirty, while Houston punched out, the drivers came, and they lined their trucks nose-to-ass and one after another drove beneath the largest hopper of all to wait, shaken by their machines, while wet concrete cascaded down the chute into each tanker before they went out to pour the foundations of a city.

Houston walked a mile to the bus stop and there he waited, covered with dirt and made sentimental by the vision of high school punks and their happy, whorish girlfriends walking to class, heading for their own daily torment, sharing cigarettes back and forth. Houston remembered doing that, and later in the boy’s bathroom …nothing ever as sweet as those mouthfuls from rushed, overhot smokes…stolen from the whole world…. In his heart—as with high school—he’d quit this job on the first day but saw nowhere else to go.

The author manifests a kind of godlike tenderness for these blundering men and their dependents. When it comes to the Sands pair, matters are a little different. Colonel Francis X. Sands is an action hero, a legend:

He was at the moment drunk and held up by the power of his own history: football for Knute Rockne at Notre Dame, missions for the Flying Tigers in Burma, antiguerrilla operations here in this jungle with Edward Lansdale, and, more lately, in South Vietnam. In Burma in ’41 he’d spent months as a POW, and escaped. And he’d fought the Malay Tigers, and the Pathet Lao…. Skip loved him….

He has a Boston Catholic background but has lost his faith and replaced it with an absolutist, evangelical anticommunism:

It’s a contest between good and evil, and its true ground is the heart of every human. I’m going to transgress outside the line a little bit now. I’m going to tell you, Skip: sometimes I wonder if it isn’t the goddamn Alamo. This is a fallen world. Every time we turn around there’s somebody else going Red…. I’m saying it’s all inside us, the whole war. It is religion, isn’t it?

He has worshiped and now must mourn JFK, whose death has just been reported as the novel begins. Distrusted by his superiors, he has managed to frustrate their efforts to contain him. This man’s man—he is a hard drinker, driven, unfaithful to his wife and mistresses equally, and with a large penis—has charisma.

One problem is that this demonic colonel is a familiar type, almost a stock character. It isn’t that such a figure isn’t credible—in fact his exploits are adapted from real life, as recorded in a memoir by William F.X. Band, Warriors Who Ride the Wind. But familiarity breeds impatience. From the start we expect lethal hubris from this man, and we duly get it. But there is a greater difficulty yet. The colonel functions as the unmoved mover in this spectacle, but, in his case, the reader is not allowed to experience events from his point of view. Since the method of the book is to present lives in fragments and increments, none of the colonel’s plots are made concretely intelligible. The reader’s expectation that there will be an ultimate clarification of them is disappointed.

In the case of the younger Sands, who gets much more space than the other main characters, we are given a study in passivity. We’ve seen his kind before, too. Skip is a seeker, bearing his own burden of lapsed faith (he suffers more acutely than his uncle in this), intelligent, unable to act in his own interest, to extricate himself. Why so?

Sands felt in his uncle’s presence a shameful and girlish despair. How would he evolve into anyone as clear, as emphatic, as Colonel Francis Sands? Quite early on he’d recognized himself as weak and impressionable and had determined to find good heroes. John F. Kennedy had been one. Lincoln, Socrates, Marcus Aurelius….

Skip is a fatherless man and his uncle has stepped in as a guide and protector, but is this enough to explain Skip’s lack of will? Here’s his wartime task:

The colonel’s entire card catalog system, over nineteen thousand entries ordered from the oldest to the latest, rested on four collapsible tables shoved against the wall either side of Skip’s bathroom door, over nineteen thousand three-by-five cards in a dozen narrow wooden drawers…. On the floor beneath the tables waited seven thirty-pound boxes of blank cards and two boxes full of thousands of eight-by-eleven photocopies, the same nineteen-thousand-card system in duplicate, four cards to a page. Skip’s main job, his basic task at this phase of his life, his purpose here in this big bedroom beside the tiny golf course, was to create a second catalog arranged by categories the colonel had devised, and then cross-reference the two. Sands had no secretary, no help—this was the colonel’s private intelligence library….

His life is defined by a pointless task notionally connected to an immoral war. When the war ends, he drifts into criminality of the nongovernmental sort in the Philippines and Malaysia. He marries a Philippine woman, produces three children, and abandons them to their fate.

The sex in Tree of Smoke is noted rather than gone into at any length. Kathy Jones makes an effort with Skip, but everybody is too distracted. She sends letters to him now and again. She too is a character who has gotten into her Asian predicament by following a greater believer, her missionary husband, martyred in 1963, a devout Calvinist whose worldview she struggles for years to embrace. In her dogged good works—works without faith—she is a paragon of perseverance. And she, too, is one of the characters marked by fatherlessness or motherlessness (her mother is a widow).

Fractured and dysfunctional families form a common background for the North American characters. Kathy Jones herself is separated from and uninterested in her own daughter. One of the Amerasian orphans whose transfer to the US she has sponsored, a survivor, like Kathy, of the orphan airlift plane crash, appears, grown into adolescence, in the last pages:

In two-inch heels and a blue skirt and yellow T-shirt tight across her training bra, with lipstick and mascara, she looked like a little whore, arrogant and sullen, her auburn hair twisting in a wind that blew from the street through the alley and down the Mississippi. She opened her purse and found a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. Her cheeks pouched as she shielded the flame with her hand and lit a filter-tip cigarette.

There is disappointment everywhere for this woman. She has finally remarried, but to an atheist, alas.

3.

Whatever the Vietnam War was, it is fading, its full meaning still contested. Any major fictional revisitation of the war can’t help but elicit a hope that among those for whom the war is, as current parlance would have it, an issue, some new illumination will be provided, some new twist of the kaleidoscope will yield a clearer, a more consoling, or simply better pattern, somehow.

This is a lot to ask of a war novel, a lot to ask of Tree of Smoke (which is the code name, by the way, for one of the colonel’s counterinsurgency schemes, a disinformation exercise). But what does Tree of Smoke offer in the way of meeting this yearning for a larger understanding of that war’s meaning? It is, after all, not a venture in investigative scholarship. No revelation of some new, exculpatory set of historical facts is going to be provided. But is there a new way to read the war that offers some lessening of the reflexive shame and unease Americans of conscience, and of a certain age, still bring to it?

Tree of Smoke is a study in collateral damage to the Americans who perpetrated the war. Primarily and in the foreground, at least, it is the damage to Americans on which Johnson is focusing in this book. These characters suffer ultimate penalties for their sins. They go mad, they end up dead, lost, alone—the gamut of terrible ends. Among the Americans, the war saves nobody and dooms many. Sympathy is created along the way for these characters. It is their sufferings that are the central subject, while the steady slaughter of two million Vietnamese proceeds, coming to the narrative proscenium intermittently, as during the days of the Tet offensive.

Forming a more forgiving, if that’s the word, attitude toward the principals in Tree of Smoke, and by extension to other Americans like them, will of course depend on what motivated them to volunteer and persist in this murderous enterprise. Denis Johnson has some complex answers to this question of motivation. Here are three:

The Vitalist Heresy. That is, existential rebirth through exposure to violence, the risk of death, the ecstasy of apostasy, voluntary degradation, absolute excess. This is an honored but flagging tradition in modern fiction. It runs, with innumerable branchings, from Stephen Crane through D.H. Lawrence, through Hemingway and Norman Mailer and Robert Stone to Chuck Palahniuk (who wrote Fight Club). War novels offer promising ground for the flourishing of this tendency. The embers of vitalism are scattered about in Tree of Smoke, but they remain only embers. Does this rather dubious heresy strongly determine personal choices in Johnson’s novel? No. And when it is expressed, it’s nuanced:

The “orphan runs”…Flight 75, which Kathy had ridden and which fate had brought down like a dragon; and Kathy reflected, certainly not for the first time, that the war hadn’t been only and exclusively terrible. It had delivered a sense, at first dreadful, eventually intoxicating, that something wild, magical, stunning might come from the next moment, death itself might erupt from the fabric of this very breath, unmasked as a friend….

Skip Sands expresses a fitful nostalgie de la boue, as in this passage about Manila:

He got out and walked toward the trouble, skirting the stalled cars, wending among the rancid puddles. A large city bus held up the flow, stopped by a single man who stood lurching in the middle of the street, drunk, his face covered with blood, T-shirt ripped down the front, weeping as he confronted this vehicle, the biggest thing he could challenge, apparently, after somebody had beaten him in a fight. Horns, voices, gunned engines. Keeping to the shadows, Skip stood and watched: the bloody face, deformed by passion, shining in the bus’s headlights; the head back, the arms limp, as if the man hung by hooks in his armpits. This reeking desperate city. It filled him with joy.

Skip has two or three similar epiphanies and then they peter out. The Houston boys enjoy certain aspects of the trade of war, like the cursory whoring, but these two find no special meaning in violence, certainly nothing remotely redemptive. Neither does the colonel. He’s just good at war, happens to be physically brave and very smart, and wants to excel. He’s not in it for thrills. The Vietnamese characters mostly have mercenary motives for their war activities in support of the Americans. So, vitalism, not really.

Bum Luck. This covers the Houston brothers, pretty much. They choose nothing. Going to war looks to them like a better deal all around than staying in hardscrabble Arizona. They go to war, do their jobs, return home having learned nothing. Despite their moral numbness, they are the easiest to forgive.

Failed Religion. This is the big motivational influence. And since, as he has declared, Denis Johnson considers himself a Christian writer, it’s not so surprising. Everybody is afflicted by, and suffering from, failed belief. Here’s a whiskey priest, Father Carignan, whose Roman Catholicism is faltering under assaults from the gods of his pagan Philippine parishioners and who has gotten himself confused with Judas:

Who are we? We’re Judas sometimes. But Judas…Judas went out and hanged himself. These thirty years, and more, that I’ve spent living with barbarians, living with their powerful gods and goddesses, taking inside me the traditions, you know, which aren’t fairy tales, they’re real, they’re real once you take them inside you, and taking inside my mind all the pictures of their tales and living in the adventures of the ancestors, and the years I’ve spent meeting face-to-face with their dangerous demons and saints, saints who have the names of the Catholic saints, but only to disguise themselves…. How many times I almost got completely lost forever, how many times I almost wandered into the part of the maze where you can never come back….

Kathy Jones and Skip Sands start out their abortive attempt at dating with conversations like this:

She trembled to ask him now if he’d perhaps read John Calvin… No. Even the question was an abyss….

“Mr. Sands,” she said, “do you know Christ?”

“I’m Catholic.”

“Yes. But do you know Christ?”

“Well,” he said, “not in the way I think you mean.”

“Neither do I.”

Here she is on her own:

On the nightstand also lay Timothy’s book, she’d found it among his things, the dreadful essays of John Calvin and his doctrine of predestination, promising a Hell full of souls made expressly to be damned, she didn’t know what to do with it, kept it near her, couldn’t help returning to its spiritual pornography like a dog to its vomit.

Colonel Sands is explicit about his loss of faith and seemingly comfortable enough with his replacement cult of anticommunism and JFK-adoration. Skip actively suffers from his loss of faith, although he has found solace in an informal personal cult featuring his uncle, and an emotional Americanness:

At the sight of the flag he tasted tears in his throat. In the Stars and Stripes all the passions of his life coalesced to produce the ache with which he loved the United States of America—with which he loved the dirty, plain, honest faces of GIs in the photographs of World War Two, with which he loved the sheets of rain rippling across the green playing field toward the end of the school year, with which he cherished the sense-memories of the summers of his childhood, the many Kansas summers, running the bases, falling harmlessly onto the grass, his head beating with heat, the stunned streets of breezeless afternoons, the thick, palpable shade of colossal elms, the muttering of radios beyond the windowsills, the whirring of redwing blackbirds, the sadness of the grownups at their incomprehensible pursuits, the voices carrying over the yards in the dusks that fell later and later, the trains moving through town into the sky. His love for his country, his homeland, was a love for the United States of America in the summertime.

Even the bad-boy Houstons have been the object of fruitless but repeated impassioned pleas from their mother to attend church, listen to Christ.

What’s going on here? Is there a figure in this very busy carpet? Why were things the way they were, at least for this particular sample of warmaking Americans? There are answers to be divined. Endemic fatherlessness/motherlessness is in this book something like a North American plague. Broken relations with parents are like broken relations with God. Human beings who are exalted into replacement roles for gods are dangerous. They don’t work out. People who take that option go haywire, do bad things. The colonel in his power and opacity is like God. The longing for God never goes away. People who keep trying to do good even though they have ceased believing are admirable. Denis Johnson’s dramaturgy seems to imply all of the above.

Looking back at the war, and looking especially hard at people in policy positions at the level of Skip and the colonel, Denis Johnson appears to suggest a connection between things going radically wrong and the general decay of piety, or, as Johnson would probably prefer to put it, of true faith. (A kind of relaxing, vague, exculpatory exhalation does ascend from such a proposition. A line from an old TV sitcom, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, goes: “Everything that happens to us is our own fault. But that’s not our fault.”)

Denis Johnson appears, in Tree of Smoke, to be dramatizing what he takes to be the consequences, in one war, of a widespread failure to believe in God. On the other hand, Johnson also seems to offer a companion suggestion that God, like the metaphorical God in the novel, Colonel Francis X. Sands, is powerful, mysterious, and ineffectual—the classic deus absconditus. I suspect that Johnson didn’t intend this last conclusion to be drawn. There are strong clues to his true position in this matter in the last few pages of the book, and preeminently in its last two lines—which I won’t cite, since so much rests on their interpretation. The reader will judge.

Left out of this work of fiction, of course, is the historical fact that true believers, religious and political leaders with no doubt at all of the truth of their religious views, were all over the Vietnam War, from Francis Cardinal Spellman to the Buddhist establishment in South Vietnam. I just mention it.

Tree of Smoke joins the corporal’s guard of truly significant novels about the Vietnam War—works such as The Quiet American, Going After Cacciato, Dog Soldiers, The Things They Carried, Meditations in Green…. Denis Johnson has created an absorbing, provocative work of art. It asks the great question, Unde malum?—Where does evil come from? It may not answer it persuasively for all, but it answers it movingly.