Tree of Smoke by
Reviewed by Ted Gioia
Reading Denis Johnson is like watching those car chase reality shows on TV.
The speed and hi-jinks get your adrenalin pumping. And though the plot seems
simple enough, the ending is always a surprise. Cops will tell you that there is
only one way to pursue a vehicle, but a thousand ways for the chase to come to
an end – none of them very pleasant.
Johnson’s characters follow a similar destiny. Some crash, others burn out, a
few simply run out of gas. The most daring pull off the road into the fields,
slamming through fences and barriers, hoping to find some makeshift path so
daunting others won’t dare follow. But someone always follows. When you are
hell bent and out of control, you never really escape – least of all from yourself.
Until a few weeks ago, Johnson was best known for a thin book of short stories,
Jesus’ Son, a gripping collection which evokes the monologues of folks in rehab
programs as they tell how they finally hit bottom. But Johnson’s latest novel,
Tree of Smoke, has more buzz than a six-pack of malt liquor, and takes the hard-
edged, gut wrenching world of Jesus’ Son to a new level. Last week, Tree of
Smoke was nominated for a National Book Award, and the smart money says
Johnson takes home the prize. In a year of prominent novels by big name
authors (DeLillo, Chabon, Roth, Ondaatje), this ranks among the very best.
Some readers may steer clear of Tree of Smoke because they don’t have the
stomach for another Vietnam story. After all, how much is there left to tell after
the coals have been raked over by The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, The Things
They Carried, Platoon, The Quiet American and so many other lesser efforts? But
don’t let that stop you. Johnson’s exceptional novel never falls into the
expected clichés of the stereotypical “war novel.” In fact, combat scenes
account for very little of Tree of Smoke, and many of the most fascinating battles
in its pages are merely psychological. Not that the author steers clear of
bloodshed and violence. But in a Denis Johnson novel, no enemy troops are
necessary for the “bang, bang, shoot, shoot” scenes, and sometimes the most
piercing wounds are self-inflicted.
The novel builds around the figure of Francis Xavier Sands – known to all as “the
Colonel” – a hard drinking, renegade CIA agent, and his wary if loyal nephew
Skip Sands. Skip is a junior operative in the espionage ranks and, like so many
others, he is hypnotized by the Colonel’s charisma and sheer cussedness. The
Colonel played football under Knute Rockne at Notre Name, flew combat
missions with the Flying Tigers in Burma, survived and escaped as a Japanese
POW during World War II – and is now mounting a single-handed effort to
disrupt and destroy communism in Southeast Asia.
But the Colonel distrusts his superiors, resents the bureaucracy of the
Washington establishment, and takes orders only from himself. His plans are
limited only by his own imagination. Should he lace the North Vietnamese
tunnels with psychedelic drugs? Should he plant a rumor that some dissident
group in the military has its own nuclear weapon and plans to blow it up in Ho
Chi Minh’s backyard? Should he send his own double agent into North Vietnam?
As the Colonel’s sidekick, the unhinged Sergeant Jimmy Storm, announces: “We
want ideas blown up right to where they’re gonna pop. We’re on the cutting
edge of reality itself. Right where it turns into a dream.”
Johnson builds several sub-plots around this main axis. We follow the exploits
of Bill Houston (a major character in Johnson's first novel, Angels) and his
younger brother James, who find that the same behavior that earns medals in
Vietnam leads to prison back in the States. We unravel the complex relationship
between Nguyen Hao, an operative for the Americans, and his Viet Cong friend
Trung Than, in which the line between loyalty and betrayal becomes so blurred
that every course of action is compromised. We trace the path of a Kathy Jones,
who comes to Southeast Asia as wife of a Christian missionary, but leaves as
one more burnt out case, leaving behind her religious faith and almost
Some have suggested that Johnson's dedication of Tree of Smoke – “Again for H.
P. and Those Who” – is his tribute to a “higher power.” Certainly his characters
invariably end up (if they survive at all) at the point where the twelve step
program should begin. But the path to recovery and redemption is always
elusive in Tree of Smoke. We find no simple inferno-to-paradise roadmap, as in
Dante; no glib resolutions, as in so many war stories. Remember that corny
scene at the end of The Deer Hunter where everybody sings “God Bless
America”? Remember when they saved Private Ryan? Tree of Smoke is not that
kind of story. But in its harrowing, relentless unfolding of a national tragedy
made all too personal, it ranks among the finest war novels of our time.
This review originally appeared on Blogcritics.