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Vietnam: Portraits from a Tragedy

Tree of Smoke

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


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.


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.

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