Thursday, June 23, 2016

Review: Tree of Smoke (2007) by Denis Johnson

cover design: Susan Mitchell

Tree of Smoke is Johnson's seventh novel, focused mainly on the CIA in Vietnam from 1963-1970.  One of the protagonists, Bill Houston, was the main character of Johnon's first novel, Angels.  The focus shifts between a cast of characters, Bill Houston, a disgraced sailor, his brother, James, a recon soldier and later tunnel rat, Nguyen Hao, a south Vietnamese citizen trying to make his way to the US, and others ranging from a missionary's widow to a West German assassin.  But mostly we get the story of William "Skip" Sands, nephew of the larger than life Colonel Francis Xavier Sands, who's more affected by Agency infighting than the viet cong.

The only other books of Johnson's I've read are Train Dreams (2012) and Jesus' Son (1992), the longer of which is about a quarter of the length of Tree of Smoke, which honestly didn't work very well to the book's advantage, as there were points where it dragged.  The language is often wonderful, although the dialogue varies from Hemingway-an to bad Tarantino impression.  If I had to say what the point of the book is, or rather what holds the whole thing together, the answer would be myth.  As Colonel Sands explains how Psy Ops is going to win the war: "This land is their myth.  We penetrate the land, we penetrate their heart, their myth, their soul.  That's real infiltration.  And that's our mission: penetrating the myth of the land." But of course one cannot infiltrate another land and remain unchanged, and the characters' own mythologies, noble wars and christian evangelism and American exceptionalism, are all eroded as the characters become part of the land they've infiltrated.

While I prefer Jesus' Son and Train Dreams, Tree of Smoke is worth a read.


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