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…
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