Joseph Dunn's Reviews > Tree of Smoke

Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson
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's review
Aug 15, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: national-book-award, literature
Read from July 30 to August 15, 2011

Ambitious, unpredictable, epic, sprawling, intricate, deep, thought provoking, and more---I enjoyed the style, the unfolding of the plot, the insight into how war impacts lives, the ugliness of the whole bit. When one of the main characters, James, returned home after serving overseas, he felt lost, confused, if he was a foreigner in his own homeland. Civilian life is depressing, which is a statement about the emptiness of materialistic culture, and how we're saturated in it...trapped. TRAPPED! Most of the characters, if not all of them, felt trapped. Caught in a fog, caught in the tree of smoke. Each character is trapped in their own way, responds in their own way, and fights to survive...but why? For what kind of life? Is it even worth living? This seems to be the question they each face in the end, and Johnson's answer seems to be - NO- which is why they choose fatalistic/destructive ways of life after the war, if not death.

While I enjoyed the characters, I think their development was the weakest aspect of the novel. Johnson wove together an intricate web of connections...they were all interrelated somehow, which was quite skillful. But many characters seemed too hidden for me. I couldn't fully grasp how they felt, what was going on inside of them. Much of the dialogue sounded as if it was spoken in military code, which had the effect of being confusing. There was an essential human element missing. The dialogue did contribute to the twists, turns, and surprises of the the spy/espionage feel...but I wasn't able to get inside their heads/hearts as much as I like.

The Tree of Smoke is a great war novel. Much of Johnson's prose really hit home, and struck a powerful chord for me. The slow unfolding and strategic revelations of information helped thicken the story and build it to a mighty crescendo. Expertly crafted. A good introduction to my first National Book Award winner.

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