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Tree Of Smoke
 
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Denis Johnson
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Tree Of Smoke

3.57 of 5 stars 3.57  ·  rating details  ·  6,245 ratings  ·  1,009 reviews
Twenty-five years in its conception, Tree of Smoke is a dark, indelible epic about the American empire in decline. 'Once upon a time there was a war, and a young American who thought of himself as the Quiet American and the Ugly American, and who wished to be neither, who wanted instead to be the Wise American, or the Good American, but who eventually came to witness himse ...more
Unknown Binding, 688 pages
Published by Picador USA (first published September 4th 2004)
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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 3,000)
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Jason
It's here folks!! How to Win the National Book Award for Dummies! Denis Johnson has pulled heavily from this publication for his novel Tree of Smoke. Let's highlight the recommendations he used to win the Book Award for fiction.

#3. Explore a topic of great controversy for the country and its people.
Johnson: the Vietnam War.

#6. Story must be sweeping, at least 500 pages.
Johnson: 614.

#7. Include at least 5 main characters with individual story threads.
Johnson: 8.
7.a. Threads should intertwine but
...more
Michelle
May 11, 2008 Michelle rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Vietnam War Buffs
Shelves: novels
From this book I learned to carefully check materials before checking them out of my local library. When I saw Tree of Smoke on the shelf, I happily checked it out and couldn't wait to get it home and start reading it. I am a fan of Denis Johnson's work, and this was his first novel in about nine years.

When I flipped to the title page, there was what looked like a flattened booger on it. I really wanted to read the book so I quickly flipped the page and started reading anyway. A few minutes late
...more
Joshua Canaan
I am not reviewing this book, as I consider myself to be utterly unqualified and am not sufficiently infatuated with my own sense of taste. I liked it. A lot. Hence the stars. There.

What I'm really delighting in right now, however, is how thoroughly unqualified B.R. Myers proved himself to be as well. His Atlantic Monthly review (found at: my link text) of "Tree of Smoke" is a display of such blind zealotry that I can't decide between crying out for him to be publicly horsewhipped and merely lau
...more
Szplug
It's quite true that, from the United States' perspective, the Second World War was the last conflict that could be considered a feel-good success. Everything since has either yet to be concluded, or produced a stalemate or checkmate that provided, at best, a wan satisfaction; at worst, an inflamed and interminable bout of indigestion—and, of the latter, certainly none more painful and unsettling than those long years of struggle that encompassed the Vietnam War. To the nation that defended Sout ...more
Jason Pettus
(My full review of this book is much longer than GoodReads' word-count limitations. Find the entire essay at the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com].)

So before anything else, a little history lesson...

From the mid-1800s until World War II, the Asian country now known as Vietnam was in actuality controlled by France and operated as a colony; during WWII, then, the Japanese invaded the area so as to install a Vichy-style fascist government. It was the Vietnamese, in fac
...more
Alex
Feb 19, 2008 Alex rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: anybody
Tree of Smoke is something like a good, plot-driven thriller (like LeCarré more than Clancy) injected with a heady dose of fog of war. It's a novel that looks at the Vietnam War through a wonderfully tuned eye for the humane, a critical piece that has no truck with the cliché activisms we're used to. It's a novel about the human effects of fighting for abstractions. It's about forgiveness and salvation, about guilt itself in the face of the unswerving trueness of death. It's about what we do to ...more
Phillip
Like many of you, I can't figure out why this book won the NBA. Not that DJ isn't a great writer, and parts of TOS are wonderfully constructed. But as a reader of hundreds of books on Vietnam and a three year all expenses paid visit there during the war, I didn't find insight into a darn thing, nothing new or meaningful. And I can turn and look at dozens of books on my shelf which are all of the above. And they didn't win squat. Obviously, some of you did.

Some of the comments (few actual 'revie
...more
Drew
This book was my own personal Vietnam. An unwinnable war of attrition to which I nevertheless remained committed to winning for an almost absurd amount of time. More significant things happened in my own life during the time I was reading it than happened in the first 400 pages of the book itself. Okay, objectively that's a lie, I suppose. But that's how it seemed!

Denis "Missing a Letter" Johnson is supposed to be a great writer, and I can almost believe he is, but that's just what it would be:
...more
Dennis D.
Dec 10, 2008 Dennis D. rated it 2 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: people who have trouble sleeping.
I don't usually read others' reviews before writing one of my own, but I had to in this case, because I figured I must have been reading a different book than everyone else. I picked this up in the first place because so many people liked it (National Book Award, numerous Top 10 lists for 2007, including NYT, Time, and EW). I rarely give up on a book, but I came close with this one a number of times; for instance, at page 300, 400, 500...even 600. I forged on, buoyed by all the acclaim and my ow ...more
W
Feb 21, 2009 W rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: anyone who has passed Am Lit 100 & 101
First of all, TREE OF SMOKE is as similar to JESUS' SON as DUBLINERS is with ULYSSES. Compare a writer messing around with his experience and craft and an author who has come under the full blown power of his pen. One can also say TREE OF SMOKE is about Vietnam in the same way MOBY DICK is about whaling. I will wait until a second reading, but we may have our first great American novel since Faulkner and, in a certain sense, Dreiser.
“Tree of Smoke” is a more literal translation of the Hebrew b
...more
Diane
Nov 22, 2008 Diane rated it 2 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Diane by: The New York Times
I must not be smart enough for this book because I didn't love it the way I know I should have. The critical reviews of this book were amazing--words like "masterpiece" were used often (see eg NYT review). To me, this novel felt like work, so much so that I had to take breaks and read the truly awful Sushi for Beginners just to get through it. The story is complicated because there are so many characters it becomes hard to focus on the so-called "main" ones. The narrative changes frequently and ...more
Janet
Another book from Les Plesko's (No Stopping Train) incredible book list, Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke almost reaches the level of literary sublimity and transcendence of Robert Stone's quintessential Vietnam book Dog Soldiers. Line for line precise, vivid, achingly beautiful, it's the interwoven stories of a double handful of characters beginning in the Phillipines just as Kennedy is assassinated, and moving through the Vietnam experience ending in the 1980's as the last characters are mopped u ...more
William
If you like an epic story this is for you. I wanted to give it 4 stars but the number of interwoven stories deterred me. I can see this being a plus for many. There are no heroes or saviors here. If you need at least one good guy in your novel you won't find one here. No matter how heroic they start out to be. If your of a certain age as I am when Vietnam and S.E. Asia were the every day topic of conversation then the amazing ability of the author to bring those headlines to life and put you ins ...more
Caitlin
"Tree of Smoke", in my opinion, is an all-or-nothing kind of book. You are either going to love it or hate. Claimed as the "Catch-22 of our times" - and given that the Heller novel is my all-time favorite - I suppose it is inevitable that I would love it.

As much as "Catch-22" was an anti-Vietnam hidden behind a WWII novel, "Tree of Smoke" can be read as an anti-Iraq novel hidden behind a Vietnam novel.

It is a gripping novel that opens with Kennedy assassination in 1963. It follows Skip Sands, a
...more
K.D. Absolutely
Mar 02, 2011 K.D. Absolutely rated it 3 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to K.D. by: Jzhunagev
Vietnam War (1955-1975). With Philippines just an ocean away and with its then several US Military Bases, the country became the launching pad of US strikes and attacks against the Vietcong and their Communist allies.

Tree of Smoke is a 2007 novel by American author Denis Johnson. It won the National Book Award for Fiction and became finalist in the Pulitzer award on that year. I have no doubt that it deserves both. It is a huge book, 700+ and my copy is the 1st edition hardbound. Since I normal
...more
Ben
Jul 29, 2008 Ben rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: B.R. Myers
I admit I was biased toward this novel even before I opened it, due partly to prior admiration toward Denis Johnson and partly to the fact that this is the most beautifully designed book I own. I just want to hold it and look at it and rub it against my face.

That said.

Everything is accomplished in this book. The Vietnam War is approached from a variety of angles--infantry, tunnel rat, South Vietnamese fighter pilot, North Vietnamese agent, CIA operative, outsourced assassin--to attempt to give a
...more
Andrew
Let's talk about Big Sprawling Novels, or, from here on out, BSN's. I'm not talking about War and Peace or Ulysses or The Magic Mountain. While these were precursors to the modern BSN, they tried to contain the whole world in a cogent narrative, even if, as in Ulysses it was told in an unconventional way. And I'm not referring to big realist novels like those being produced by Jonathan Franzen or Zadie Smith.

The new BSN can draw a direct lineage to Thomas Pynchon. Especially Gravity's Rainbow. I
...more
John
I'm still not sure what I feel about this book. Frankly, after reading a number reviews here on goodreads I can sympathize with them all. So maybe that makes it a fascinating book. If you are wondering whether to put this on your list read 10 or so of the first reviews and you'll save yourself some time.

Yes this book IS about "Vietnam". You know the war. Another book 'Nam. And I think to compare it to other earlier novels on the topic is fair. But it's approaching 40 years later and he actually
...more
Grant Faulkner
I think I'm Denis Johnson's ideal reader in some ways--his first novel, Angels, and then his collection of short stories, Jesus's Son, are among my favorite books. So I was eager to read Tree of Smoke, especially after several reviews elevated it to masterpiece status and it was nominated for a National Book Award.

The novel is ambitious, but doesn't deliver. The things Johnson does so well--for example, his keen, poignant portraits of people desperately clinging to the edge of life--don't quite
...more
Tripp
Feb 03, 2008 Tripp rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Literary fiction lovers, international relations students
There are Tree of Smoke lovers and haters. Count me on the side of the lovers. The time shifts in the first section might make you think you are in for a trippy update of Dispatches, but the book quickly moves into a year by year account of the destruction of a number of American and Vietnamese lives.

The title represents a number of images and themes in the book. It references a verse in the Bible which a grizzled intelligence vet uses as a code name and a kind of mantra. The tree is used to sig
...more
wally
this will be the 2nd johnson-denis for me...the other, nobody move and that recent, within the last six months or so. give or take.

last night at 3:00 a.m. president kennedy had been killed. seaman houston and the other two recruits slept while the first reports traveled around the world. there was one small nightspot on the island, a dilapidated club with big revolving fans in the ceiling and one bar and one pinball game; the two marines who ran the club had come by to wake them up and tell them
...more
KFed
'Tree of Smoke' is a failure. A very good, very long, likable failure. It is like spending an afternoon attempting to skip stones across a river and failing in this effort while succeeding in other important ways. The stones never skip; but do you not learn more about the stones, and about yourself, in the process? Does your mind not increasingly hone in to the small successes and failures that determine the fate of each throw? Do you not remain entranced despite mounting frustrations?

This was
...more
Shauna
Hm. Let me back up here (back up, back up) because I'm not sure anyone wants to hear this.

It ain't all that.

There are big problems with some redundant characters and both flat writing and listless plotting in the opening chapters. Then it gets good. Then the last section kills. But I can't help but think that if this were a debut, I would not have persisted through the sloppier portions of it, and I really don't think epic is Johnson's game.

Now let me add one big saving grace that has nothing to
...more
Steve
This may be the best Vietnam book I've ever read (and I've read several). The trippy sweep of story and language seems appropriate. And unlike other Vietnam novels, this one dares to be epic, and succeeds! If Pynchon and Robert Stone had decided to write a book together, it might look like this.
Andrew
Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke is the American literary novel at its best: absorbing, epic, challenging, meditative, marvelously poetic from one sentence to the next. To label this labyrinthine, relentless tale of an infantryman, sailor, CIA spook, ARVN officer, Vietcong double agent, and others a "Vietnam novel" seems to do it it a disservice. And yet, that's what it is: a devastating journey through the Vietnam War, to all the dark crevices of the American experience and the human condition. Jo ...more
Jill
I finally finished this amazing book. I am a fan of anything about the Vietnam war, you know, the first one we lost. That is what this novel is about, and naturally delves into each characters' "heart of darkness."
Denis Johnson paints unfiltered portraits of a general, a corporal, a marine, a navy newbie, VC's, CIA operatives, assasins on both sides, a volunteer nurse, a priest, a double-agent, a girlfriend back home, an ignorant mom- every possible character perspective of a war that began SNA
...more
Roderick
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Adam
Johnson turns in a murky, depressing epic of the fading American Empire through the prism of a collection of lives that are warped and ruined by the Vietnam War. Conrad’s hearts of darkness, Le Carre’s claustrophobic spy themed visions of hell, Johnson’s back catalog and a considerable chunk of literature of the war (Herr’s Dispatches, Le Carre’s Honorable Schoolboy, Greene’s Quiet American, and Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers) are encompassed here. Filled with lots of elliptical anti-drama with sig ...more
Reid
This novel reclaims the word quagmire from family guy and puts it back in the jungles of southeast asia, where it belongs. The fatal flaw might be that the characters are already dead inside when we meet them. So, some of the book's parts are good, and the whole is more than the average of its parts, but the writing, the plot, the characters and the meanings are not that special ... he succeeded in depicting life, and war, as a morass... but not in a good way. Every character is in their own pri ...more
Chuck
4.5-stars
I'm not sure what to think about this one. I liked it very much. There was a lot of good stuff in it, but I felt like key pieces I just wasn't getting. Someday I might re-read this. I don't know. I'm not sure it's supposed to make a lot of sense. Parts of it were very funny; it had me laughing out loud many times. Overall though it's pretty damn deep and serious.
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Poet, playwright and author Denis Johnson was born in Munich, West Germany in 1949 and was raised in Tokyo, Manila and Washington. He holds a masters' degree from the University of Iowa and has received many awards for his work, including a Lannan Fellowship in Fiction (1993), a Whiting Writer's Award (1986), the Aga Khan Prize for Fiction from the Paris Review for Train Dreams, and most recently, ...more
More about Denis Johnson...
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“She had nothing in this world but her two hands and her crazy love for Jesus, who seemed, for his part, never to have heard of her.” 30 likes
“Everybody’s got a mean side. Just don’t feed it till it grows.” 14 likes
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