Tree of smoke

by Denis Johnson

Paper Book, 2007

Status

Available

Genres

Publication

New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007.

Description

"This is the story of William "Skip" Sands, CIA - engaged in Psychological Operations against the Vietcong - and the disasters that befall him. This is also the story of the Houston brothers, Bill and James, young men who drift out of the Arizona desert and into a war where the line between disinformation and delusion has blurred away. In its vision of human folly, this is a story like nothing in our literature."--BOOK JACKET.

Media reviews

The labyrinthine Tree of Smoke is full of hitches, tangents, but it reads exceedingly fast. It suggests a protracted war that moved in an exacting blur.
4 more
When a novel’s first words are “Last night at 3:00 a.m. President Kennedy had been killed,” and the rest of it evinces no more feel for the English language and often a good deal less, and America’s most revered living writer touts “prose of amazing power and stylishness” on the back cover, and reviewers agree that whatever may be wrong with the book, there’s no faulting its finely crafted sentences—when I see all this, I begin to smell a rat.
In fact, since the publication of his first novel, in 1983, he has been preoccupied with the paradoxical notions of self-sacrifice and salvation in our modern world—but never before has Johnson’s writing been quite so haunted and harrowing as it is in his massive new novel, twenty-five years in the works.
Johnson's orchestration of these characters' intersecting lives is often graceless — as his last couple of novels have demonstrated, plotting has never been one of his strengths — and he has an unfortunate tendency to embroider their adventures with lots of portentous philosophizing about good and evil and religious faith. His heat-seeking eye for detail and his ability to render those observations in hot, tactile prose, however, immerse us so thoroughly in the fetid world of the war and the even more noxious world of espionage that they effectively erase the book's occasional longueurs. Johnson not only succeeds in conjuring the anomalous, hallucinatory aura of the Vietnam War as authoritatively as Stephen Wright or Francis Ford Coppola, but he also shows its fallout on his characters with harrowing emotional precision. He has written a flawed but deeply resonant novel that is bound to become one of the classic works of literature produced by that tragic and uncannily familiar war.
Tree of Smoke is as excessive and messy as Moby Dick. Anything further removed from the tucked-up, hospital corners school of British fiction is hard to imagine. It's a big, dirty, unmade bed of a book and, once you settle in you're in no hurry to get out.

User reviews

LibraryThing member crazy4novels
"Tree of Smoke," "Fog of War," "Heart of Darkness" -- apparently, clarity of vision is one of the inevitable casualties of any protracted conflict. Original objectives, rules of engagement, perceptions of right and wrong, the true nature of the enemy -- these concepts eventually begin to shift and tumble like the colored shards in a kaleidoscope.

I've always preferred viewing movies about the Viet Nam War over reading books about the same. Stone, Kubrick, and Coppola have all captured the tragedy, heroism, and absurdity of Viet Nam with a sensory immediacy that leaves the viewer exhausted but edified -- the 2-3 hour cinematic journey is painful, but the viewer emerges from the experience as a better person. When Denis Johnson's "Tree of Smoke" won the National Book Award for fiction, I decided I would overcome my hesitancy about Viet Nam novels and actually read the book.

Three weeks and 600 pages later, I've reached two conclusions: 1) Reading about a brutal, senseless war for days on end is considerably more draining than viewing 2 hours of "Full Metal Jacket." I read a good portion of the book while vacationing in Cabo San Lucas, and it colored my experience of the entire trip. 2) That being said, I am glad I read Johnson's prizewinner. The book's title, "Tree of Smoke," aptly reflects a theme that is explored throughout the novel: the ambiguity and duality of human nature, and our innate drive to seek absolutes in a gray world that rebuffs our attempts to answer life's deepest questions.

The book's primary story is that of Skip Sands, a CIA Special Ops agent, as he experiences the war and its aftermath from 1964-1984. The reader is also drawn into the tale of Skip's legendary uncle, the Colonel; Skip's wartime lover, a Christian relief worker named Kathy; an unforgettable Viet Cong agent named Trung who "turns" for the US; and two hapless brothers from Arizona who lack all sense of personal direction. Nothing is clear here. Is Skip ultimately a true believer who is betrayed by his country, or a gun-running criminal who has lost his moral compass? Is "The Colonel" a heroic leader worthy of mythic deification, or an alcoholic who has crossed the line from eccentricity to madness? Is Trung a man of conscience who switches his allegiance based upon principle, or an opportunist who cooperates with the highest bidder? Does Kathy believe her missionary message, or is she just going through the motions out of habit? Does the war ruin Bill and James, or are they losers who were destined to meet a bad end under any circumstances? Even the underlying symbolism of the "Tree of Smoke" changes; it is depicted variously as the unwavering pillar of fire that led the Children of Israel out of Egypt, the smoky cloud of an atomic bomb, the murky branches of a CIA organization whose objectives are unclear, and the profound chaos and confusion of combat itself.

I highly recommend this book.
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LibraryThing member lriley
Tree of Smoke is a very deserving National book award winner in fiction this year. One could look at it as a kind of the other side of Graham Greene's 'The quiet American' written many years ago just prior to America stepping into for earnest--the Vietnam quagmire. Vietnam here is the focus but it takes some time for the anti-hero of the novel William 'Skip' Sands to get there. First we see him in the Phillipines where his uncle is running operations for the CIA. These include murders and assassinations of dissidents including a priest. His uncle brings Skip slowly into the circle of his operations in the Phillipines and later on in Vietnam giving him more work but always leaving him somewhat in the dark. In between for Skip there are moments of clarity but mostly he is left confused by the roles he's given. There are also a few moments of near redemption for Skip--a brief love affair that goes awry--but also brutality and betrayal and finally execution for him in Malaya many years after the war for smuggling guns. There are several other major characters as well and some grim and descriptive war scenes. Some comic moments as well and very often in the dialogue. Johnson never loses for a moment his grip on his story. He maintains tight control and even though there is a fable like quality to much of it there is also a sense of a pre-destiny not to be denied. Puting the story aside though Johnson is a master craftsman of the English language--remindinscent in some respects of say a Paul West or even a Cormac McCarthy. His writing skill is what elevates this work beyond the Greene book mentioned above and Greene was a very adept prose writer. In any case this could be looked upon as a book that makes a career and I have to say that I liked it very much.… (more)
LibraryThing member marysargent
A big, complex, very good novel about Viet Nam. I read it over a long period of time and lost the thread at times, so don't feel I have a good grasp of the narrative, but the characters, the sense of being there, of its being another world were powerful. A fine writer.
LibraryThing member furriebarry
The book is shared between the POV of several people who are all affected in some way by the story's main character, a WWII Colonel who works for the CIA, and it follows them before, during and after the Vietnam war. While we never get the Colonel's POV he is the driving force behind the plot. The book meanders over several years and 3/4 of the way through I was set for the threads to be tied up and to have some of the many questions posed to that point answered. Unfortunately this isn't that kind of book. Instead of being offered a nicely finished conclusion some storylines just drop of the radar, some are left hanging (literally) and we are shifted to the POV of a here-to minor character for a large part of the ending. I don't need neat endings but I do require some justification for plotlines and for several none are given. This book is all about the journey, which is enjoyable, and let down by the destination, which left me unsatisfied.… (more)
LibraryThing member bcquinnsmom
As the book opens, it is 1963, the day after JFK has been assassinated. Tree of Smoke follows the Vietnam war years through 1970, and then there's an add-on that happens in 1983, long after the war is over. The major character focus is William "Skip" Sands, a CIA PsyOps agent recruited by his uncle Colonel Frances Xavier Sands. At the outset, Skip views himself as a patriot, working on behalf of his country, but as the war winds on, he becomes ultimately disillusioned, eventually admitting that he "alternatively 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 F*ing American" (603). Skip joined his uncle’s coterie of groupies who follow the Colonel blindly. On index cards, he documents and catalogs information given to him by his uncle, but while he was in Vietnam, desperately wanting to put his training to work, he was kept out of the way at a dead physician's villa, where he "felt himself captured in a rainbow bubble of irrelevance." Skip realizes that he'd "come to war to see abstractions become realities. Instead he'd seen the reverse. Everything was abstract now." Hence the title: "Tree of Smoke" --the sense of obtuseness surrounding the Vietnam War for the characters in this novel, who all seem to work within different and changing frameworks of reality and deception. As the war continues, Skip unravels, finally giving up "working for the giant-size criminals," and going to work for "the medium size. Lousy hours and no fringe benefits, but the ethics are clearer." And it's not just Skip who breaks...the subplots are based on other characters who have to deal with how the war has affected their psyches and continues to do so after the war is over.

An amazing book...it's going to be tough for me to top this one this year in my reading travels. I very highly recommend it. After reading this, I got the sensation that Johnson's portrayal of his characters caught up in the Vietnam War had them all stuck in some sort of cosmic PsyOps operation - in which, as one character notes, "we're on the cutting edge of reality itself. Right where it turns into a dream "(255).

Simply outstanding. I can't praise it enough!
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LibraryThing member jphamilton
Disappointment.
Wrong book at the wrong time.
I just didn't GET IT.
Don't read a war novel when you're feeling peaceful.

Any of these could be the reason that I just didn't enjoy the reading experience of an older book by one of my favorite writers. Whatever the reason, I didn't like much about this novel. Yes, there was one of the most intense and gross torture scenes I've ever read, and the letters of a dead man were effective and well-crafted at the book's conclusion, but so much of the book didn't deliver for me. I have high expectations for anything by Denis Johnson ... or should I say I HAD high expectations? Maybe I just didn't want to be immersed in the brutality of Vietnam all over again. Skip Sands and the CIA in the theater of war had some fine writing swirling around them, but it just wasn't a place I wanted my head.

This book has been in my view for a long time as a base to hold my computer's monitor up higher. Maybe this demeaning use of a long novel was taking cruel advantage of its thickness AND possibly creating a bad vibe with the emotions of the story. Can an inanimate object harbor ill will? I am willing to take the blame for my disappointment.
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LibraryThing member colinsky
It took me FOREVER to read this book, but only because of endless interruptions to my novel reading times. I bought this book one day when I rushed into my favourite bookstore hours before a flight to Manila, asking the wise man behind the counter for a recommendation. I had been thinking literary travel. He got a peculiar faraway look in his eye and tossed Tree of Smoke at me. I blanched a bit at the prospect of lugging a 624 page book across hemispheres and trying to read it in a coach class seat without injuring myself or another passenger, but I couldn't possibly say no to this fellow.
I liked the book. It's very Graham Greene, but also in the same genre as other realistic accounts of the madness of the VietNam war (like Dispatches, for instance). The main characters were well drawn and complex (a good dose of Mistah Kurtz in the Colonel, one of the main and most inscrutable characters). The interlocking stories worked well. One thing: what's with the continual references to bread? It was often either being craved or being consumed or being generally unavailable. I wondered if there was some kind of allusion, a bit beyond my addled brain, other than the conventional kinds of religious (staff of life, bread as body, etc. etc.) things.
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LibraryThing member spounds
Hmmm...There are some books where I wonder if I'm just too dumb to understand it or if it really is non-sensical. This is one of those books. I went away thinking I missed something.
LibraryThing member Hagelstein
This is a beautifully written, and sometimes heartbreaking book. The loneliness and inner turmoil of men and women involved in war permeates the story without dragging it down. Detail and emotion carry the story so well that although this is a long book at over 600 pages, it doesn't feel that way.
LibraryThing member novelcommentary
The New York Times ends their review with the following statement about Dennis Johnson: "He has written a flawed but deeply resonant novel that is bound to become one of the classic works of literature produced by that tragic and uncannily familiar war."

I like the juxtaposition of “flawed but deeply resonant” to describe this novel. This is quite a book, well written, illusive, thoughtful-- a modern Catch 22 but with less humor. The main character, Skip Sands was the new version of Kurtz in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. A good hearted, fatherless midwestern, Skip Sands joins the CIA to be under the mentorship of his dynamic, bigger than life Uncle, Colonel Sands. As Skip moves from the menial tasks first assigned ( cataloging names) to the more dangerous assignments ( helping a double agent), he is excited by the whole scenario – suffice it to say he changes a lot. Another part of the novel details two brothers from Arizona who also are affected by their experience, and the novel does a great job of detailing how hard it is for them to move past that experience. There is also Kathy, who works with the orphanages and who at times loves Skip, but her life too will go through the disillusionment of this existence. She reflects: they have “worshipped their own lies, spat on their own dreams, turned their backs on their true beliefs”
By telling the interspersed stories of several characters, Johnson depicts a thoughtful portrait of the Vietnam War. The disillusionment, the gritty reality, the loss of morals --many themes explored in language that is both a challenge and a pleasure to discover.
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LibraryThing member John
Towards the end of the novel, one of the protagonists says:

I have betrayed
My kindred out of allegiance to my lords
My lords out of allegiance to my country
My country out of allegiance to kindred

Another character muses at one point: “Well, you were sad about the kids for a while, for a month, two months, three months. You’re sad about the kids, sad about the animals, you don’t do the women, you don’t kill the animals, but after that you realize this is a war zone and everybody here lives in it. You don’t care whether these people live or die tomorrow, you don’t care whether you yourself live or die tomorrow, you kick the children aside, you do the women, you shoot the animals”.

This is a novel about the morally and spiritually deadening effects of not just war, but of the particular war that was Vietnam; a war fought in a confusion of purposes or, perhaps more dangerous, in the light of certainties such as the containment of communism at all costs; a war where survival meant ignoring the distinction between friend and foe or at least not making much effort in that regard; a war where empathy and human feelings were soon smothered and from where it was a short step to taking revenge on defenseless people of whom there were always many ready at hand; a war, not unlike others in this regard, where personalities and bureaucratic fights for supremacy and control and power overshadowed any larger purpose; a war where those practicing it create their own realities (“Ninety-nine percent of the shit that goes through my head on a daily basis is against the law. But not here. Here the shit in my head is the law and nothing but the law.”); a war where the larger reality is lost (“We’re on the cutting edge of reality itself. Right where it turns into a dream.”); a war about very young, often not well educated and certainly not very sophisticated men (“He was like that, that’s all, mostly when he drank, which was most of the time; otherwise he was just mostly young and mostly stupid, like most of the rest of them.”) are given basic training and indoctrination and then turned loose with awful weaponry at their command.

I am reminded of a saying about grand theories being pregnant with mountains of corpses, and it is this human side of suffering and death that is so often lost, but not by Johnson in this passage:

“It likely hadn’t been napalm, she saw, but rather a white-phosphorous bomb. At the sound of low aircraft the villagers had raced for the cover of the jungle. Several had been killed. One, a young girl, still survived, deep in shock, extensively charred, naked. Nothing could be done. Kathy didn’t touch her. The villagers sat surrounding her in the dusk. The pallid green shimmering of her burns competed with the last light. She looked magical, and in Kathy’s exhaustion and in this atmosphere of aftermath and silence the scene felt dreamed. The girl was like some idol powered by moonlight. After all signs of life had ceased, her flesh went on glowing in the dark.”
The novel follows a number of principal characters, both American and Vietnamese, representing a panoply or professions and people. It is searing in its indictment of the perversion of life and of wasted lives. Not, I think, the masterpiece that some describe, but well written, direct, complex, descriptive, emotional.
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LibraryThing member santhony
This novel is part of my ongoing effort to upgrade my reading list, having won a National Book Award in 2007. I found it to be generally very well written and captivating, but suffering from periods of dense prose and underediting.

I must say that the Amazon review profile is one of the most unusual I've ever seen, an almost reverse bell curve. Readers either love it or hate it, which is somewhat surprising, because I really found it relatively easy to read and can't imagine what would impel anyone to give it a one or two star rating.

In any event, the novel centers on the Vietnam War, however very little actual fighting is mentioned. Instead, intrigue by the CIA and various other intelligence agencies provide the basis for the story, which follows several disparate plot lines, some of which never seem to intersect.

I've seen references to Apocolypse Now and the novel is deeply influenced by the character of Colonel Francis X. Sands, an old line CIA operative who has gone renegade and surrounded himself with accolytes to do his bidding. To these accolytes, Sands is a demi-god, much in the mold of Colonel Kurtz. Sands's nephew, Skip, is the primary character in the story. His interaction with the various other characters and the establishment's efforts to reign in "the Colonel" are what tie the novel together.

At 614 pages of small typed, full pages, this is a relatively long book, at times in need of editing, in my opinion. There are a couple of story lines that don't seem to go anywhere, primarily those of Kathy Jones (I guess every book needs a love interest) and the brothers from Arizona, that while very entertaining don't seem to have any relevance to the story other than to interject the ugly, seedy world of the front line grunt.

I've got to think that there is an outstanding 500 page novel somewhere in this book, but the periods of pretentious, dense prose (thankfully few and far between) and the filler material drags it down below the highest standard. A very worthwhile read nonetheless.
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LibraryThing member ckavich
This is another book I just couldn't quite get though, even with its great reviews. Perhaps at a later date I'll give it another shot.
LibraryThing member mojomomma
This is a novel set during the Vietnam War and focuses on the operations of the CIA in that theater. Main characters are Colonel Francis Sands and his nephew Skip and the Houston brothers, Bill Jr. and James. The Sands work for the CIA and are attempting to find a Viet Cong double agent. The Houston brothers join up with the military because there aren't any better options for them and both are profoundly affected by their military service. I would have to preferred to hear more about the Houstons and less about the Sands. This book would have been 20 pages shorter if the "f" word was omitted. Another in a long string of books that I didn't love. It was well outside my usual taste.… (more)
LibraryThing member geneayres
This is, in the simplest terms, the best book I have read, fiction or otherwise, about Vietnam.
LibraryThing member clogbottom
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 complete picture of a convoluted epoch in world history. Going further, Johnson successfully ties these threads into a highly arresting narrative. And even further, the narrative is bursting with philosophy about what the War meant. The phrase "Tree of Smoke" is more than just a catchy title, etc.

'Tree of Smoke' contains a jarringly realistic vision of what it means when the front line catches up to you.

The prose is lean but potent. I didn't find the plot to be lacking a motor, in fact I read this book quite quickly. Denis Johnson's prior longish novel, 'Already Dead,' sort of descended into a quagmire toward the end. Not so with 'Tree of Smoke.' It's obvious that this subject meant a lot to him, and leads one to suspect he had long wanted to write about the Vietnam War.

I can only assume that as years pass this novel will be looked back upon as the quintessential novel of the Vietnam War. You should read it.
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LibraryThing member BeachWriter
Denis Johnson has created a Faulknerian epic of the Vietnam war, with hired assassins, combat-loving soldiers, and a mysterious colonel who orchestrates behind-the-scenes plots to wage a private conflict. The characters are well drawn and believable, and the plotting complex. If the ending is less than satisfying, it does not detract from the pleasure of getting to it.… (more)
LibraryThing member mikewick
"Tree of Smoke" has left me with one of those Mr. Jones feelings--something's happening here and I wish I knew what it was. The novel is replete with deceptions--against loved ones, their colleagues, the country the serve, themselves, and the reader. It's the stuff that spooks are made of, the food that mind and body are made of after a lifetime of subsisting on it. While I'm tempted to describe the plot as Apocalypse Now wedded with spy novels, it wouldn't be doing the plot justice. Wishing I had read "The Quite American" and "The Ugly American" prior to this (two books repeatedly referenced in the work), I feel like I've missed something in ignoring its literary genealogy. Regrets aside, Johnson's work was impressive in its scope of following the work of Skip Sands, the untested and seemingly naive CIA operative, the colonel, Skip's uncle and legend of the agency, and the two Houston brothers who were wrapped up in the Vietnam war--one of whom was involved in the psy-ops independently directed by the colonel and irrevocably shattered by his actions. It's a book I'll be thinking of for some time, if only to scratch my head until the "ah-ha!" moment attends.… (more)
LibraryThing member scrappycat
The inside of the jacket:
This is the story of William "Skip" Sand, CIA - engaged in Psychological Operations against the Vietcong - and the disasters that befall him. This is also the story of the Houston brothers, Bill and James, young men who drift out of the Arizona desert and into a war where the line between disinformation and delusion has blurred away. In its vision of human folly, this is a story like nothing in our literature.

First of all, I read this book, sort of the same way I watch The Unit on television. When I watch The Unit, I am usually sitting on the couch, paging through a magazine. When a scene comes on with the wives, I put down my magazine and watch, when the war story comes back on, I pick back up my magazine. Why do I even watch The Unit?? Because I control about 99% of our Tivo watching, my husband's 1% is The Unit and a couple of shows from Spike TV. If he can watch Project Runway, Criminal Minds, Top Chef, Real Housewives of Orange County, and all the other shows that I make him watch, then I can watch The Unit.

So, anyway. I did read this book, all 614 pages of it. I could tell that it was a good book and an interesting book if you like war stories, and covert operations, and things like that. I just kind of paid more attention to the characters and their personalities and less on the covert operations part, and even then it held my interest. So, if you like war based stories, then you would probably really like this!
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LibraryThing member catapult_operator
In addition to the prestige of winning the National Book Award & being selected as one of the 5 Best Books of 2007 by the New York Times, Johnson’s magnificent saga of the Vietnam War is also one of those books that this Humble Bookseller thinks will stand up as an important, politically poignant piece of fiction – possibly remembered as the quintessential novel of Vietnam (with apologies to Tim O’Brien.) And it’s more than just a Vietnam novel – it is more so about who we became as a people in its aftermath, with an abundance of parallels to our current foreign predicament(s). Funny, sad, serious, critical, cynical, all the time, on every page - a brilliant book.… (more)
LibraryThing member augustin
The language is just wild, and the story is gripping.
LibraryThing member moonflea
I love Denis Johnson. I think he is an amazing, mind-blowing author who assembles the most amazing sentences. He has a way of depicting lost souls, whose hells are mostly self-created, and seducing the reader into entering those hells by way of empathy and love. My difficulty in engaging myself with this novel is that I didn’t love the characters in Tree of Smoke. Most of the time, I found them despicable, and at the very least, sad. I think this may be part of the book’s genius. I have no direct experience of Vietnam but what I gather from movies, history books, and documentaries is that this same sinister antipathy pervaded. I don’t really know. War is not my thing.
Tree of Smoke spans the years 1963 through 1970, and juxtaposes the stories of William “Skip” Sands, CIA, working for Psychological Operations against the Vietcong, and brothers, Bill and James Houston, who both enlist in the Army. This 614 page novel is generally about Vietnam, and CIA and military strategies, following not only the American point of view but also entering the lives of various Vietnamese with different backgrounds and involvement in the war. We see amorality on both sides, atrocities against man and animal alike.
For me, personally, Johnson’s genius is cemented in his depiction of the Philippines. He captures atmospheres, characteristics of the terrain, and esoteric cultural aspects with masterful authenticity. It’s not some fantasized, touristic picture, but ireality: over-worked caribou, monkey meat, pig’s blood, Tag-lish and children mistaking white men for priests.
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LibraryThing member fourbears
Compelling. I had to read it to the end, though I’m not sure I actually made sense of it. The main character is Skip Sands, a good American boy who follows his dead father’s brother (“the Colonel, Francis Xavier Sands) into the CIA and into PsyOps. After getting his feet wet in southeast Asia with the Colonel’s operations in the Philippines, Skip, something of a linguist, goes to Monterrey to learn Vietnamese in preparation for going to Vietnam. But he’s not the CIA type. He’s more of a scholar who tackles new languages with gusto and, stationed in the home of a dead French eye doctor, spends his time reading and studying in his library. Neither action nor deception come naturally to him. He’s, moreover, idealistic, hooked on the idea of “serving his country” as did his father who died at Pearl Harbor and his uncle. He always wants to “know the truth” and doesn’t take naturally to the Colonel’s sense that loyalty (to one’s buddies, one’s unit, one’s leader) is the primary virtue.The Colonel is a CIA operative turned rogue. His plan (named “tree of smoke” from several Old Testament passages) is to run a double agent back into North Vietnam, convincing the leadership that the US plans a nuclear attack. One review was entitled “Bright Shining Lie” and while it didn’t reference Neil Sheehan’s famous book, my first thought when I met “the Colonel” of Johnson’s novel was Sheehan’s version of Lieutenant Colonel John Paul Van, an outspoken army field adviser who criticized the way the war was being waged, ignored his superiors and leaked his pessimistic assessments to the U.S. press corps in Saigon. In Viet Nam, Johnson’s Colonel Sands dies before his plan becomes operational, dies but no one ever knows definitively how or why. Many assume he’s still alive in hiding somewhere; others assume the CIA killed him off. From the first when a priest is assassinated in the Philippines, it’s clear that Skip is not the man to deal with the Colonel’s PsyOps programs. The Colonel has supposedly chosen him because he’s family and will be loyal. He doesn’t understand Skip any more than Skip understands the Colonel. There’s a girl too. Kathy Jones. A Canadian who comes to southeast Asia with her Seventh Day Adventist husband who dies in the Philippines, she stays on as a nurse and then in programs to adopt children out of the area. Overworked with practically no support she’s alternatively ultra religious and ultra skeptical. She and Skip have a brief affair. She writes to him at the language school and he ignores her letters; in the end he writes to her and says he loved her and missed his chance.Two other Americans are the Houston brothers, Bill and James, a sailor and a soldier who seem to represent the kind of recruits who didn’t die in southeast Asia, but who learned how to become savage. There seems no redemption for them; they return home to end up rootless, in and out of jail. Kathy barely survives a plane crash (with a load of orphans) and ends up crippled in mind and body. Skip's fate is the worst.The plot of this novel is elliptical and tortured. Critics see an analogy between it and the labyrinthine Viet Cong tunnels that figured prominently in that war. The writing is occasionally brilliant and moving, but mostly not.… (more)
LibraryThing member gabebaker
Over the past two years I've read most of Denis Johnson's published prose. DJ has unique voice - his language is poetic without getting too abstract. He scratches me right where I itch. Like several of his other novels, Tree of Smoke could be classified as a thriller. The story of CIA man Skip Sands, his uncle the Colonel, and a large cast of supporting characters is an exciting romp through Southeast Asia before, during and after the U.S.'s military involvement in Vietman. (Don't be intimated by the length - if you're interested in the subject matter you'll probably find Tree of Smoke to be a page turner rather than a slog.) Even beyond DJ's use of language, plot and characterization, Tree of Smoke is special due to DJ's ability to invoke man's craving for the sublime, the transcendent. I don't know how the component parts create this effect, but they do. Part of it may be that DJ is the rare modern author that takes religious experience seriously.… (more)
LibraryThing member TimBazzett
TREE OF SMOKE, by Denis Johnson.

Wow! Double wow even. Whatever I say about Johnson's book couldn't begin to describe what a magnificent accomplishment it is. It's one of those books that, had Johnson written no other books, would still cement his reputation in the canon of American literature. Filled with rich, fully realized characters and descriptions of the whole Vietnam era - and its long-lasting and far-reaching repercussions - TREE OF SMOKE is a book that will stick with me for a long time. CIA operatives Skip Sands, his larger-than-life uncle, "the colonel" F.X. Sands, Rick Voss, Crodelle - they all ring true, like 'em or not. And Sgt Jimmy Storm and brothers Bill and James Houston ring equally true as psychopathic emotional casualties of that war. And Hao, Minh and Trung are Vietnamese characters who keep turning up in a web of intrigue, deception and betrayal. Kathy Jones, the young widow of a missionary, who tries so hard to save as many of the orphans of the war, could break your heart. And there is also a chillingly professional German assassin, Dietrich Fest, who keeps turning up, product of a Nazi father and an SS older brother.

This book has been called a "masterpiece" and, I think, an American War and Peace. And this kind of praise is not an exaggeration. The book's 700-page bulk could seem intimidating, and maybe that's why I didn't read it eight years ago, when it won the National Book Award. Well the story is so well-made, so gripping, that I read it in just a few days. It's that good. Johnson seems to have grasped the awfulness of this war, and voices it in the words of his Corporal James Houston, a three-tour burned-out psychopath, who explains why he maimed and murdered a Vietnamese woman while on a LURP patrol -

"... because she's a whore, and this is a war. And that's what happens, because this is a war, and because this is not just a war."

The influence of Graham Green's THE QUIET AMERICAN is obvious here, as is THE UGLY AMERICAN. In fact both books are mentioned more than once. Religion and its failures are also central to the story. A Catholic priest notes that "God doesn't care who is Protestant or Catholic. God himself is not Catholic."

A line that I must admit made me smile, and also to reflect, 'hmm ... neither was Jesus, come to think of it."

Two very small complaints from me: One, Johnson makes the error of placing the Defense Language Institute and the Naval Postgraduate School in Carmel. Both are in Monterey. And he also errs in referring to a "Major's bars" as an insignia of rank. A Major's insignia is a gold oak leaf. Only lieutenants and captains have "bars."

But enough. Better and smarter men than I have already praised this book extravagantly. Well, all those good things they said? Me too. I'm so glad I finally read this book. Very highly recommended.
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