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Tree of Smoke

3.53  ·  Rating details ·  10,816 ratings  ·  1,283 reviews
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 himself as the Real American and finally as simply the Fucking American. Thats me. This is the story of Skip Sands ...more
Hardcover, First Edition, 2007, 614 pages
Published September 4th 2007 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (first published September 4th 2004)
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Average rating 3.53  · 
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Jason
May 24, 2010 rated it did not like it
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
Apr 07, 2008 rated it really liked it
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
...more
Joshua Canaan
Oct 04, 2007 rated it it was amazing
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
...more
Jason Pettus
Dec 05, 2007 rated it really liked it
(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
...more
Drew
Apr 23, 2011 rated it did not like it
Shelves: stalled-midway
This book was my own personal Vietnam. An unwinnable war of attrition 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: a
...more
ΞιsNιnΞ
Tree of Smoke: The Lords of Fear & Discord

description

'Tree of Smoke' -- the title could be a metaphor for Johnson's accomplishment with this novel; if the 'smoke' is the stylistic mastery of prose he's always possessed, the 'tree' would be the solid, organic story at the novels core. He's always had more substance behind his narrative than some of the other great American stylists, like Don Delillo; but ToS is far more rich in character and plot than anything he's written before. The naysayers can
...more
Szplug
Jul 30, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 indigestionand, 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 ...more
Alex
Feb 08, 2008 rated it really liked it
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
Janet
Aug 30, 2014 rated it it was amazing
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 ...more
Phillip
Jun 17, 2008 rated it it was ok
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
...more
Caitlin
Feb 17, 2012 rated it it was amazing
"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
Dennis D.
Dec 04, 2008 rated it it was ok
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 ...more
W
Oct 14, 2007 rated it it was amazing
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 be
...more
Dan
Dec 12, 2019 rated it it was amazing
A storm came over, fell like a cataract for five minutes, and subsided. Then it was foggy, hard to breathe. James slid himself along the bench to the end of the carrier and ventured to look out at the Vietnam Warrain dripping from gigantic leaves, deformed vehicles, small peoplethe truck gearing down, engine bawling, mud boiling under the big tiresbarefoot pedestrians stepping away from the road, brown faces passing, rut after rut after rut, the beer lurching in his stomach.


Tree of Smoke by
...more
wally
Jan 12, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: johnson-denis
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
Ben
Jul 29, 2008 rated it it was amazing
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
Tripp
Feb 02, 2008 rated it it was amazing
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
...more
Josh
Oct 14, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This is one hell of a novel. In my opinion it was worth the time, and deserving of the accolades it received. By page 400 I could not put it down. Prior to that it was hit and miss but mostly very readable.
In a way, ToS reminds me of Moby Dick or Blood Meridian: a great journey, a larger than life figure tormented by something inchoate yet total, severity of language and philosophical outlook, total destruction, a feeling like being slowly pulled apart the deeper you descend...

One of the
...more
RB
Aug 06, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Again, Denis Johnson, this time with a large, 600-page tome, has devastated this reader. Having been speechless after reading "Tree of Smoke" and only having finished it a day ago, this review will be slight when what this book needs is a proper, well-though out critical essay and that is not what is going to happen.

In short: line for line, character by character, this book is all too real. This is a mammoth undertaking and it is an even bigger success. For those who have read "Angels" you will
...more
Joseph
Dec 23, 2014 rated it really liked it
This is essentially a spy/war thriller with a philosophical and poetic edge. A standard cast of characters: a somewhat conflicted, young CIA agent; his older, worldly boss; some shadowy bureaucrats back at Langley; a love-interest; an assassin;a double agent; and the assortment of enlisted men: the psychos, the slobs, the walking wounded, the straights. The book focuses on thriller-type scenes, usually violent, with alternating domestic scenes to give some local color or background.

The novel
...more
Diane
Nov 17, 2008 rated it it was ok
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
Tony
Feb 04, 2009 rated it really liked it
Shelves: u-s-lit
Reviewers of this book fall into two disparate camps: those who think it is a work of genius and those who feel it is crap. Well, I thought it was brilliant. I'm not sure it is THE quintessential 'Vietnam' book, but it will certainly do until THAT book comes along. Dialogue-driven, Tree of Smoke moves at a brisk pace notwithstanding its girth. The chapters are named by year, 1963 to 1970 and then a lengthy 'epilogue' '1983'. The story shifts constantly between characters, which helps instead of ...more
Krista
Apr 22, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: war, 2017
Uncle F.X., pillar of fire, tree of smoke, wanted to raise a great tree in his own image, a mushroom cloud if not a real one over the rubble of Hanoi, then its dreaded possibility in the mind of Uncle Ho, the Enemy King. And who could say the delirious old warrior didn't grapple after actual truths? Intelligence, data, analysis be damned; to hell with reason, categories, synthesis, common sense. All was ideology and imagery and conjuring. Fires to light the minds and heat the acts of men.
...more
KFed
Apr 27, 2009 rated it liked it
'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
Kevin
Jun 17, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites
The cancer of war.
Spreading like a plague from its epicentre, gorging on flesh, derailing minds, torturing emotions - only the strongest survive and then just barely.
An all pervading turmoil unbound by time or distance.
Entirely artificial, entirely human.

Tree of Smoke follows several characters in the Vietnam war, expertly leading the reader through its horrors from both sides of the engagement. Family, love, hopelessness, revenge, survival, purpose are all major themes, as they struggle with
...more
John
Dec 23, 2008 rated it really liked it
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
K.D. Absolutely
Jul 29, 2010 rated it liked it
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
...more
Grant Faulkner
Feb 14, 2008 rated it it was ok
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
Dan
Oct 09, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book receives very mixed reviews and I can certainly understand why. I really enjoyed the Denis Johnson's writing but can see that it will not GE everyone's "cup of tea". I couldn't give this 5 stars for a couple of reSons. One, I never quite reconciled how the Houston brothers "fit" into the story of Skip Sands and his uncle. It wasn't that they weren't interesting and didn't fit into the backdrop of the Vietnam War but it didn't coalesce for me. Second, while I love Johnson's prose, I ...more
William
Apr 16, 2008 rated it liked it
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 ...more
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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 earned a masters' degree from the University of Iowa and 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

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