Ryan's Reviews > Tree of Smoke

Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson
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's review
Nov 05, 2011

it was amazing
bookshelves: favorites, fic-historical, fic-literary

This is a powerful, well-written book, and one of the best I've ever read about the Vietnam war, though it's less about the direct experience of war, and more about the madness, surreality, and moral confusion that swirls around war's fire (the "tree of smoke"). Johnson is a writer's writer. His prose is poetic and psychologically rich, full of passages I that I sometimes rewound my audiobook just to hear again. His dialogue and description are often lifelike, surreal, profound, and quotable all at once. The book's central figure, The Colonel, an old school warrior with a blunt-spoken, avuncular manner and a powerful (and renegade) sense of personal mission, is one of the most colorful characters I've come across in a while. Johnson's window into the world of counterintelligence offers a rich perspective on a United States driven by a sense of post-World War Two clarity and purpose that becomes more mythical and mirage-like as his characters find themselves foundering in uncertainty.

Read the sequence about teenage American soldiers newly arrived in Vietnam and perhaps you'll understand what I mean. They act exactly like you'd expect teenagers to, immature, without a clue what's going on, but determined to maintain their teenage bravado, even as the veteran soldiers mess with them. These scenes are effective, darkly funny, and totally believable; after reading them, I wondered how so many other authors managed to get teenage American soldiers so *wrong*.

However, there's no denying that Tree of Smoke will repel some readers. It's a depressing book, and portrays a war seemingly lost in the souls of those conducting it, as their convictions drive them into murky moral paradoxes and places of existential isolation. Few of the characters are very likable or even very knowable, particularly the young infantryman James, who, aside from the rush of sex and combat, dwells in a vacuum of indifference. The novel's also long, meandering, and full of sequences that, like the characters themselves, seem to wander for pages and pages without clear purpose (e.g. Jimmy Storm's bizarre quest into the jungles of Malaysia at the end of the book, long after the war is over). In fact, one could remove entire chapters without significantly altering the overall plot or changing the message Johnson has to impart.

Yet, this is a haunting, searing, mesmerizing work, touching on many significant themes, though they never quite coalesce into an easily digestible whole. Tree of Smoke is a book to read for the vivid, hazy intensity of Johnson's vision. If you appreciate writers like Faulkner or Cormac McCarthy, check this one out; if pulp like Tom Clancy is more your style, then stay, stay, stay away.

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