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Tree of Smoke

Review

Tree of Smoke

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