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December 18, 2007 |

By Phillip Stephens | Books | December 18, 2007 |

If you can imagine the first 15 minutes of Apocalypse Now, wherein Martin Sheen revels in the madness of a Saigon hotel, stretched into a 600-plus page tome, then you have the essence of Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke. The book is less about a story than a feeling; it has no arc or development, and the events which occupy it loosely string together to form something inconclusive — none of these things seem to matter, almost as if the life and reality of the narrative are afterthoughts. What is most paramount in Tree of Smoke is the nightmarish trance it invokes, the thick pervasive blanket of doom that lies over everyone and everything therein. Consequently, I don’t really know what to tell you about it — the book is mesmerizing in good and bad ways: I’ll never forget it, and I’ll never read it again.

Beginning in the Philippines with probably the most beautiful prose found in the novel, Johnson introduces us to inscrutable characters who wander aimlessly from the impoverishment of the American Southwest to the horrifying miasma of Vietnam, where they wait and wait and wait between the cortisol nightmares of combat (the waiting is far more horrible). In this sheer fog of uncertainty, the Kurtz-like Col. Sands helms a murky intelligence operation known as “Tree of Smoke.” The Colonel’s nephew, Skip Sands, ends up involved as well, unwittingly following his uncle’s footsteps from the Philippines to the C.I.A. in Vietnam. Exactly what “Tree of Smoke” is trying to accomplish is never really clear, but it slowly, terribly becomes a fiasco.

To call Johnson’s novel an enigma wrapped in a mystery is something of an understatement. Johnson is using old modernist tricks here — to envelope his meaning in layers of uncertainty, to offer no tension or important exposition but merely immerse the reader in an environment of spiritual dread, to eliminate characters randomly and without purpose, and then to offer no real denouement. At regular intervals, for example, Johnson pulls the story away from the immediacy of the operation to focus on two characters — brothers Bill and James Houston, slogging through their tours of duty for no reason other than that it offers a respite from their dismal, impoverished lives in Arizona. These characters have no real connection to any other element in the story; their only purpose, so far as I could tell, was to enhance the overall mood of desperation.

The result is a curious but overwhelming effect on the reader; at times pushing through Johnson’s narrative felt akin to sloughing. It was hard to pick up a book that so thoroughly lacked a sense of immediacy; Johnson’s point seemed to be his total lack of purpose. Yet for the prose that it’s written I can have no greater praise; for creating an evocative, breathtaking air of sadness the author has no rival. Tree of Smoke seems to work most successfully as a sheer metaphor for the Vietnam War, much like Coppola’s film. And as a metaphor, it’s peerless, but as a novel? Total ambivalence.

Phillip Stephens is the lead critic for Pajiba. He lives in Fayetteville, AR, and is going on a binge of children’s books after this.

Time (The Revelator)

Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson / Phillip Stephens

Books | December 18, 2007 |

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