The lives of Skip Sands, a spy-in-training engaged in psychological operations against the Vietcong, and brothers Bill and James Houston, young men who drift out of the Arizona desert into a war, intertwine in a novel of America during the Vietnam War.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
The narrative fosuces on a young CIA officer assigned to Vietnam in 1961, Skip Sands. Skip is the nephew of the near-mythic, and definitely delusional Frank Sands, a colonel in (presumably) military intelligence, and one major driving force behind American intervention. Other characters also bob and eddy in Frank's wake, in particular a sergeant named Jimmy Storm. His real name, it turns out is B.S., and in this B.S. Storm, we have a distillation of one of the main thrusts of this novel.
Skip butts heads with B.S. on his way to ultimate disillusionment. At the end, besides being a man wanted by the authorities, Skip feels he must assert the truth of Frank's demise, against all those who want to believe he's alive.
I have to congratulate Denis Johnson on the effort throughout, but there is one episode that seals this novel's greatness for me. B.S. forces a shady local man to help him determine some piece of intelligence or other - this is very late in the game, after the Colonel is dead (I think - it's been well over a year since I read this). In the course of guiding Sgt. B.S. Storm to this remote location, the man and the sergeant have to go through a maze-like cave system. They get briefly lost, and thoroughly covered in bat guano. Ultimately, they both fall from a hole six or eight feet to the ground, emerging from the cave into the light, having been "shat" to the ground. I thought this was a sort of summation, a highly appropriate treatment for our master BS-er.
This is masterful, vivid, and powerful. The very distinctive language of the American soldier in Vietnam - part battlefield stress, part drug addlement, part military slang, and all insubordination - is wonderfully, distractingly, on display here. I shake my head in wonder. This is one to definitely take up. Most definitely.
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.
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.
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!
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.