TREE OF SMOKE
By Denis Johnson
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $27, 614 pages
REVIEWED BY JOANNE MCNEIL
Denis Johnson’s “Jesus’ Son” was the least-contested work in the New York Times’ otherwise-controversial 2006 list, the “Best Literature in 25 years.” But it is no wonder. The loosely linked short story collection is powerfully moving without any sentimentality. No one who reads it can forget it.
Mr. Johnson writes about lonely, deprived people. He knows how they talk and what they dream about. He understands their spiritual voids. Characters are often suicidal or drug-addicted, but his sparse, distant writing style gives them a chance to redeem themselves.
Violence as an expression of male innocence has always been a major theme in Mr. Johnson’s work. For that reason, it seems fitting that his newest novel, “Tree of Smoke” (which reportedly took nearly two decades to complete), is about the ultimate collision of innocence and violence: The Vietnam war.
It is an enormous undertaking for any fiction writer, as creative work about Vietnam inevitably strikes comparisons to Tim O’Brian, “Full Metal Jacket” and “Apocalypse Now.” Yet remarkably, Mr. Johnson shows us this familiar brutal landscape with fresh eyes.
In the first three pages, Bill Houston, a young soldier stationed in the Philippines, has learned that President Kennedy was just killed. He walks off with his rifle, and “without really thinking about anything at all,” he shoots a wild monkey in the distance. Bill watches the monkey suffering and runs to it. He grabs the animal, cradles it, and with “fascination, then with revulsion,” he realizes his victim is crying.
“Its breath came out in sobs, and tears welled out of its eyes when it blinked. It looked here and there, appearing no more interested in him than anything else it might be seeing… . As he held the animal in his hands, its heart stopped beating. He gave it a shake, but he knew it was useless. He felt as if everything was all his fault, and with no one around to know about it, he let himself cry like a child. He was eighteen years old.”
It is a powerful passage by anyone’s standards, but for fans of Mr. Johnson’s past work, it is especially heartbreaking. Bill Houston was the protagonist of Johnson’s first novel, published in 1983, “Angels.” This 18-year-old boy will grow up to be an alcoholic, thrice-divorced lowlife with vulgar tattoos up his arms. He and his brother James will rob a bank. His brother will get shot. Bill will shoot back. And Bill will die in the gas chamber.
But you don’t need to know any of that to appreciate this novel. Mr. Johnson’s sense of fairness, and grasp of human contradiction, is present in every page of it. He is a rare writer who makes his characters accountable while still reminding the reader of their naivete. Were he not an author, Mr. Johnson might have been the greatest defense attorney in history.
“Tree of Smoke” reads like a Graham Greene novel rewritten by Richard Yates. Its dark sense of wartime humility is coupled with evocative, poetic language. And, at 614 pages, it is an epic. The novel runs chronologically from 1963 to 1970, with a coda in 1983.
A major plotline revolves around Skip Sanders, “who alternately thought of himself as the Quiet American and the Ugly American, and who wished to be neither.” Skip is recruited to work in CIA psy ops. Slowly, but steadily, his patriotic sense of duty depletes as he further gets entrenched in the corruption of his mission.
“Tree of Smoke” is the name of one such mission. Skip works for his batty Machiavellian uncle, Francis X. Sands, who also serves as a father figure (Skip’s father died in Pearl Harbor). They have recruited a Viet Cong double agent, but trust is cheap. Given the nature of their operations, good and evil precincts seem as unreliable as the rest of their world.
One character calls the psych ops, “like yogic or spiritual work.” Ironically, Skip finds himself in the arms of a Seventh-day Adventist charity worker and war widow. Skip relishes this attention from Kathy Jones as he shies away from it. Most of their interaction (save one stretch of three weeks) is through letters.
Skip’s story runs parallel with that of the young Houston brothers. In the Marines, Bill is continually demoted until he’s sent back to Arizona. James, who joined the army with sadistic vigor, gives way to the worst of his impulses and commits an unforgivable crime. As he is interrogated by a commanding officer, James asks, humorlessly, “What is this … doing in my movie?”
“So you want to keep on keeping on … Watching your technicolor movie,” the captain replies. “Right there I kind of agree with you, James. I don’t think it’s highly advisable to turn you loose on the United States. I’d keep you right here till you get killed. But if it ain’t bass-ackwards, it ain’t the U.S. Army, is it?”
By end of 1969, Saigon’s chaos seems inexhaustible. There are no heroes, only disillusioned young men. Kathy meets a soldier in a bar who buys her a drink in exchange for a conversation. He tells her about a girl he is seeing in Pleiku, whose parents were killed, and whose brother was left brain-damaged “with half a face.”
But that’s the way of life in Vietnam: “you were sad about the kids for a while, for a month, two months, three months. You’re sad about the kids, sad about the animals, you don’t do the women, you don’t kill the animals, but after that you realize this is a war zone and everyone here lives in it. You don’t care whether these people live or die tomorrow, you don’t care whether you yourself live or die tomorrow, you kick the children aside, you do the women, you shoot the animals.”
It is a long novel and the reader will often need to pause to reflect on its gripping images and dark sense of irony. But ultimately Mr. Johnson’s effort has paid off. “Tree of Smoke” is masterful and unforgettable.
Joanne McNeil is a freelance writer in Massachusetts.