Back to Vietnam
Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke
Tree of Smoke
Denis Johnson has given us so many maimed and suffering souls in the past 25 years he could fill a trauma ward. Here are men and women hollowed out by domestic loss (The Name of the World), drug use (Jesus’ Son) and failed suicide attempts (Resuscitation of a Drowned Man), not to mention the end of the world (Fiskadoro). Entering his 60s, Johnson has given us his apocalypse now: a big, slow-motion epic about America’s experience in Vietnam.
Even if you think you’re done with Vietnam novels, Tree of Smoke could change your mind—it belongs on the shelf next to Tim O’Brien, Larry Heinemann and Stephen Wright. Not only does it recreate the jungle’s ooze and the paranoid warble of a war being micromanaged by the CIA, but it encapsulates the long, horrible fallout in prose as good as any Johnson has written yet. (And it just won the National Book Award for fiction.)
The story revolves around a large cast of characters, the most important of which are Skip Sands and his storied uncle, the Colonel. Both wind up in Vietnam—one having already proved himself a hero, the other desperate to do so as a CIA operative. Skip’s view of war and the U.S. military is forever changed when he witnesses a priest assassinated in the Philippines by the CIA. His experience in Vietnam goes south from there.
This type of turning point happens again and again throughout Tree of Smoke. One by one, Johnson bends his characters over the wooden bench of his prose and breaks their innocence. In one early scene, a soldier hikes into the jungle and shoots a monkey just because he can. He immediately freaks out. “Jesus Christ,” he shouts at the convulsed, dying animal, “as if it might do something about its embarrassing and hateful condition.”
In Johnson’s vision, that irrational episode becomes emblematic of U.S. involvement in the war. The novel begins on the day of Kennedy’s assassination with hard-core military types in tears and side-winds luxuriantly, in Johnson’s most robust four-barreled tone, into the ’80s, where some of its characters wash up brittle and embittered. In addition to Skip, there’s a Canadian nurse who loses her missionary husband, and a South Vietnamese envoy whose fate gets bounced around with that of his American minders. There are also two brothers, Bill and James Huston, whose experience in country is terribly familiar in its random brutality.
Although Johnson’s characters have remained similarly banged up over the years—Tree of Smoke even carries one of them forward from his debut novel, Angels—this book showcases his mastery of genres. Ten years ago he published a noir; now, with Tree of Smoke he’s written a thriller. The plot is braided within an inch of its life. Its prose has been put on steroids and fed a diet of red meat.
This stylistic change gives some sequences an action-flick cadence. There are captains who pronounce self-esteem “self-steam” and proto-macho strategy lunches powered by dialogue like, “When the balance tips too far, you jump on the teeter-totter—on my side incidentally.”
All this testosterone could easily lend this big, sprawling, flawed but beautiful novel to one sledgehammer of a film—the kind of adaptation that would flatten the nuance and unequivocal rightness of Johnson’s treatment of war: as a flame that burns everything around it to the ground. Johnson’s characters barely even get to claim the remains. “Now what,” says Kathy Jones, the nurse, when her husband’s ring is brought to her as evidence of his death. “What do I do with this?” No one has an answer to that question.
John Freeman is president of the National Book Critics Circle.