Szplug's Reviews > Tree of Smoke

Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson
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Aug 03, 11

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 Southeast Asia from Japan's imperial dream in the mid-Forties it must have seemed that another glorious and successful partnership would be worked in ridding the area of the peril of expansionary communism; to have thus found themselves considered the aggressors, the imperialists, the baby-killers, worked some serious bad juju upon the mindset of America, one from which it took decades to recover its self-esteem; it has still to recover its equilibrium. So it was that upon recent consideration after a long spell of banishment in the shelves, Tree of Smoke held little appeal for me—who wants to revisit that theatre of epic futility, especially when it has seemingly been mined, in film and in print, for all its worth?—but the back cover blurb promising a main character who was a CIA operative engaged in Psychological Operations against the Vietcong planted a seed of interest in my mind that blossomed forth a couple of days later with a strength and pull that I could not resist.

I thought this was really good. I wanted to love it, but I couldn't; I was afraid I might dislike it, but I didn't; it's a book that seems to have divided its readers into two passionate camps, both of whose arguments I can now appreciate—but I'm firmly aligned with its fans, holding this thick, smoky, filmic page-turner to be a flawed work of genius. I didn't care for some of the plot decisions and turns that Johnson opted for, and I was occasionally tempted—though I never acquiesced—to start skimming where I sensed that Johnson was going off on another lengthy and meandering tangent; but neither of these negatives amount to much compared to Johnson's ability to pen fiction of a cinematic quality, in sweltering jungle and arid desert locations, that chronicles the destruction and dissipation and obsessions of various interconnected individuals during the turbid chaos of the Vietnam War. His aptitude for flowing, verisimilar dialogue makes this a novel that is driven by its character's conversations; indeed, it is frequently jarring in that major situations or developments are delivered in succinct summaries at the onset of a new chapter, and the character's subsequent discourses the primary means of fleshing out the details of what exactly transpired and, more importantly, how its ripples will affect the large cast of characters who populate the pages.

Although the story unfolds across select years of the Vietnam War—and concludes with one of its aftermath—its themes are applicable across all modern day conflicts: Johnson's true setting is the Fog of War, and how, beneath its vast, disorienting, and vivifying blanket, all manner of individuals—be they religious care workers, patriotic intelligence officers, Vietnamese regime supporters or communist subversives, raw rookie volunteer infantrymen, or legendary heroic figures—can and do lose their way, become corrupted or degraded or upended or abraded to the degree that they no longer recognize themselves or the combination of means and ends that have seized control of their waking lives. This is a hallucinatory, smothering, violent demesne, with a CIA that is fractured, divided, and working out disparate and competing operations that break both the law and its agents' spirits; while the army is presented as a disorganized and chaotic presence, an arm that allows its soldiers the opportunity to engage in fucking up the Vietnamese, channeling their energies into a murderous violence that ofttimes slips beyond the control of a unit's officers. War is both a hellish nightmare and an ideal and exciting testing ground for men, particularly when they experience it young; every character—but one—eagerly anticipates entering Vietnam, each with various idealizations of what they are there to achieve and how they desire to implement these goals—and each will see these desires crumble, idealizations turn into doubts—everything become shambolic and corrosive. These individuals came into the war with the expectation of having the abstractions that etiolated their lives given definitive form, become reality—but the truth of the matter is that what reality had existed for them was stretched and thinned out, become abstract. Southeast Asia is a sweltering, humid, liquid environment, ripe for dark nights of the soul and diseases of both the flesh and the spirit. The bifurcation of the patient and enduring natives—having cast off the French and now chary of this new power arrived upon their shores—and what they desire for their sorely tested homeland, and the energized, well-intended Americans, with their competitive scheming and convoluted plotting always on the verge of breaking apart into warlordism, is nicely handled.

The story is driven by the trio of William "Skip" Sands, a CIA agent assigned to a Psy-Ops unit headed by his paternal uncle, The Colonel—a larger-than-life legend whose exploits prior to, during, and after the Second World War have taken on a mythological status—and the latter's perfervid and mindfuckery-minded disciple, Jimmy Storm, a sergeant on loan from the US Army. The Colonel has commandeered an Army platoon, a Vietnamese village and adjacent mountain-top Landing-Zone, and a substantial amount of bureaucratic interest and rivalry in his effort to implement a convoluted and precarious scheme to shatter the North Vietnamese Will-To-Fight at the very highest level. Riding escort duty is the intermingled tale of the Houston brothers—Bill, who never sets foot in Vietnam, though—or perhaps because—he is marked by early death experiences; and his younger brother James, an aimless teenager trapped in the dead-end, blue-collar tedium of Phoenix, Arizona, who views service in the war as an opportunity to effect some mayhem whilst collecting a steady paycheque and escape the stifling confines of an existence that scares him—and a spirited nurse for an Orphan's NGO, Kathy Jones, who provides a bit of Canadian fervor and the Calvinistic determinism that threatens to either damn or absolve these characters up front, depending upon which angle of Hell you viewed them from. These figures touch upon the lives of their Filipino and Vietnamese counterparts and servants, who are all working towards their own particular ends, ones that may—or may not—be aligned with a loyalty to their respective foreign benefactors and/or employers.

There is a long introduction that takes place within the Philippines, a prelude to the coming experience of Vietnam—and besides being a brilliantly detailed set piece, it completely and expertly delineates how both Americans and natives will be ruined by their immersion in a conflict without clear-cut borders, endowed with blurry endpoints and enframed by dubious philosophies. This is bookended with a lengthy epilogue in which the reader gets provided with snapshots of the destruction meted out by the passing of the years, the way this terrible tropical conflict has infected its character's lives, and how one particular mythological obsession has seared itself into the flesh; the cooling words of redemptive hope that drop the curtain after seven hundred and two pages offer a brief palliative to these terrible burns—but a palliative only: the scarring is permanent.
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Comments (showing 1-11 of 11) (11 new)

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message 1: by Paquita Maria (new)

Paquita Maria Sanchez I've had a copy of this for 2 or 3 years, and have never even cracked it. I did notice, though, that people do seem pretty divided on whether this is so-great-oh-my-god, or a total pile of crap whose greatest goal in life should be to one day serve as kindling for a campfire. I loved Jesus' Son, though, so I've always known that I would one day give it a chance. You have motivated me, sir.

message 2: by Szplug (last edited Aug 02, 2011 04:48PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Szplug I'd long had this on the shelves too—I think it was Jason Binks' brutal evisceration of the book—and its subsequent comment thread—that, more than anything else, made me so long delay giving it a shot. It's my first Johnson, though I also loved the cinematic version of Jesus' Son—despite discovering a depressing amount of Fuckhead in myself—and I was buoyed in my determination to begin it by rereading a few four- and five-star laudations from my GR buddies. You like Flannery O'Connor, no? I might describe Johnson as a weird fusion of the styling of her, Earl Thompson, and Robert Stone. It doesn't always work, but for the most part it does so quite splendidly.

message 3: by Paquita Maria (new)

Paquita Maria Sanchez Oh, I do rememeber the Binks review now. Quite a lashing, indeed. You say Flannery, though, and I say "Cool, I'm on it." I also encourage you to read Jesus' Son. If you like the movie, then you will certainly like the book. Hey, and don't sweat it...we all have a little "Fuckheadness" in our DNA. (That scene, for example, was scripted almost word-for-word from the book.)

Szplug Yes, everybody has been recommending to me that I read Jesus' Son, so I definitely will. He has a number of books out there, almost all of which, apart from JS, seem to provoke a strong opinion either way. It's always an exciting thing to discover a new author with a big Santa Bag of books to sample!

message 5: by Szplug (last edited Aug 02, 2011 05:05PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Szplug Jesus, I really feel like this review is a scattershot mess, leaking out all over the place. I'm hot and cooking at the office where the AC is on the fritz, swabbed in sweat and scraping along in a scatter-brained lethargy—I hope I'm doing ol' Denis Johnson justice here.

message 6: by Paquita Maria (new)

Paquita Maria Sanchez Disagree with the scattershot assessment. Then again, I'm a scatterbrained sort, so I may not be the best judge of "scatter" out of all of us scattered here on gr.

Szplug Gracias, PM. I disagree with your scatterbrained caveat for your scattershot assessment, but I, myself, am guilty of brain-scatter with the best of 'em—and with that, I believe you and I have the makings here for a glorious circularity! :)

message 8: by Paquita Maria (new)

Paquita Maria Sanchez Vortex!

Szplug A Goodreads gyration!

message 10: by Jim (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jim Coughenour Great review, Chris! I wonder what you'll think of Jesus' Son after reading this. It may be a let-down.

My reluctance to read another Vietnam tale was similar to yours. (I remember us talking about Kolko – I slogged all the way through Anatomy of a War a long while back, which seemed as long as the war itself. Excellent analysis, though.)

Congratulations on making it through the Smoke.

message 11: by Szplug (last edited Aug 10, 2011 06:12PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Szplug Thanks, Jim. Your four stars were a big part in generating the impetus for me to finally dig this out of the shelves and have at it, and I'm glad that I did. JS will definitely be added to the list of books I am looking forward to reading.

I'm now in the same era on the opposite side of the Pacific—trying to make progress through the infinite word count of Rick Perlstein's Nixonland . It's a great read, biased but reasonably fair, and with some great insights into the Sixties from a political POV; however, there's little pleasantness to be found there, but rather a wearying amount of violence, anger, ressentiment, deceit, despair, fear, dissimulation and manipulation and mongering in all manner of forms. In other words, business as usual.

But, man, is this thing ever long; it feels like I have been reading it for ages now and I've barely made a dent. Whew.

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