Review

Tree of Smoke

by Denis Johnson

Other novels of the Vietnam War have been moving, tragic, heartrending and absurd --- as much so, perhaps, as the war (any war?) itself. But with the possible exception of CATCH-22, no other war novel I’ve read has been as trenchant as Denis Johnson’s TREE OF SMOKE. Beginning with the emotional impact of the assassination of President Kennedy, Johnson presents each year from 1963 to 1970 in its own chapter, following the life of a young, bookish CIA operative named Skip Sands, who has followed his idolized uncle, the Colonel, into the service. Skip spends much of the book undercover and in the dark about his pending assignment from the Colonel, reading philosophy in a remote villa in Vietnam. His fervent belief in the rightness of his country’s mission in Vietnam is allied with his admiration and love for his uncle, a hard-drinking lifelong agency operative.  

Contrasted with Skip’s earnestness, the novel also chronicles the lives of James and Bill Houston, poor young men from Phoenix who enlist to get out of finishing high school and get away from their born-again single mother, whom they love but whom they consider pathetic. James is the younger of the two, and with him we see, hear and feel the war in Vietnam. “James slid himself along the bench to the end of the carrier and ventured to look out at the Vietnam War --- rain dripping from gigantic leaves, deformed vehicles, small people --- the truck gearing down, engine bawling, mud boiling under the big tires --- barefoot pedestrians stepping away from the road, brown faces passing, rut after rut after rut, the beer lurching in his stomach.”

James serves in a Recon unit, and the only action he sees in his first tour occurs in the Purple Bar and the hooches out back where the whores work. “God almighty, some part of him prayed, if this is war let peace never come.” So he re-enlists, and his second tour, which begins with the Tet offensive, is a very different and ugly story. Ultimately, James’s unit comes under the Colonel’s directive, and the two main narrative threads briefly converge.   

Can there be a war without God? Says the Colonel, “In order to prosecute our own wars we raise them to the level of human sacrifice, don’t we, and we constantly invoke our God. It’s got to be about something bigger than dying, or we’d all turn deserter.” The women in the novel are all religious in their way: Skip’s Midwestern mother, unsure about the justice of the war; James’s mom, absolutely certain that God is on the U.S. side and disdainful of war protesters; and Kathy, an aid worker trying to make sense of the Calvinist God who took her husband.

The Biblical metaphor of the tree of smoke (Joel, Chapter 2, usually translated as “pillar of smoke”) plays multiple roles: as a symbol of destruction and as a symbol of obfuscation. Most of the characters, despite their class and racial differences, struggle to make sense of the war, and their ponderings and utterances pierce the reader’s heart in language that is fresh and resonant. Here is Kathy’s observation of the American soldiers in Vietnam: “They threw hand grenades through doorways and blew the arms and legs off ignorant farmers, they rescued puppies from starvation and smuggled them home to Mississippi in their shirts, they burned down whole villages and raped young girls, they stole medicines by the jeepload to save the lives of orphans.”

If Johnson has an agenda, it seems to be only to reveal the complexity of human nature fired in the cauldron of war. His compassion for all of his characters shows in his careful detailing of what they see, hear and think. The plot also concerns a double agent, the Colonel’s megalomaniac shenanigans and the aftermath of the war. But this epic book is simply too huge to do justice to in a review. Read it for yourself; it packs a wallop, and you won’t begrudge a single one of its 600 pages.

Reviewed by Eileen Zimmerman Nicol on January 24, 2011

Tree of Smoke
by Denis Johnson

  • Publication Date: September 4, 2007
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 624 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • ISBN-10: 0374279128
  • ISBN-13: 9780374279127