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Saturday, October 27, 2007

Department of Book Reports 39: Tree of Smoke


Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke (FSG $27.00) may be one of the most bleak and disturbing American novels ever written. It is also one of the most satisfying and important books I have ever read.
Beginning with the assassination of JFK, and ending in the mantra like sentences, “All will be saved”, Johnson explores the U.S. involvement in the Viet Nam war through several characters, of whom, young CIA operative, William “Skip” Sands is central. Sands uncle, known as the Colonel, is also his unofficial commander and has assigned young Sands to one of the quieter Vietnamese provinces in order to do ‘Psych Ops’. Interweaving Sands’ story is that of two brothers from Arizona, Bill Houston, who serves in the Navy, and James, who serves, ultimately three tours ‘in country’, and whose story intersects that of Skip’s during the Tet offensive. These fellows and the other finely etched characters are profoundly alienated souls, and their attempts at connecting to one another through love or misguided ideology fail, and fail with tragic consequences. A drunk admiral near the beginning of the story warns young Bill Houston, “Hard times are coming”. Indeed.
Throughout the long narrative, there are evocations of Graham Greene, Joseph Conrad, and Eugene Burdick. Skip can never quite figure out whether he is the ‘Ugly’ or the ‘Quiet’ American. In the pivotal scene where Sands interviews the VC soldier, Truang, who is being turned into a double agent, Sands tells Truang, “Do you know what I think? I think maybe I think too much”.
As the brutality of the war asserts itself during the Tet offensive and beyond, the rules are abandoned. The agents and soldiers of Psych Ops had lived with the convention that Americans ‘don’t do the women, they don’t shoot the animals’; and in the end, the women are ‘done’ and the animals are shot.
Amid the story line, Johnson has textured the story with the flavor of its terrain, including the opening sequences in the Philippines, and, later, Viet Nam. The heat, the humidity, the nasty flies permeate the page. Animals abound throughout, from the opening episode of a monkey getting shot to the dog who everyone believes to embody the soul of the deceased French doctor, a student of Artaud and Bataille, who once lived the ville where Sands is stationed.
It can be hard to recommend a book that has such ugliness and contains no heroes. But the truth of the writing is proof of Keats’ accolade that truth is beauty and beauty, truth. Johnson delivers a novel so true, that engages our senses, our intellects and our hearts in a way so fulfilling and so beautiful that he achieves what every great novel does: he changes the way we look at the world.

Tree of Smoke has been nominated for the National Book Award in fiction. It is available at Jackson Street Books and other fine independent bookstores.
And may I second Miss Poppy’s fine wares. I did much of my Christmas shopping with her last year, and plan to do so again.

democommie™™™™®© is still recuperating from his birthday bash. We hope he had a great time!

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