Tackling a subject as immense and arduous as the war in Vietnam is often a thankless task. Too often, writers try to cram as much information and events as possible into a book in order to try to make it “the” definitive book on the fiasco. However, every so often a book can offer, maybe not a fresh take on the war, but at least a brilliant one. Tree of Smoke is a terrifying, dissonant opera, a 600-page epic about the military’s disintegrating role in Vietnam. Author Denis Johnson is one of the criminally underrated geniuses of American writing fully capable of pulling out a ground-changing masterpiece, as he did in 1992 with the now-legendary collection, Jesus’ Son. Tree of Smoke is a tremendous book, very long but very fast, a great whirly ride that starts out sad and gets sadder and sadder, loops unpredictably out and around, and then lurches down so suddenly at the very end that it will make your stomach flop.
Tree of Smoke is mostly about a man named Skip Sands, a novice in the C.I.A, who begins the book as a young man in 1965, and makes it almost to the end, though by then it is 1983 and he’s ancient. It’s also about his uncle, a legendary CIA operative; the Houston brothers, Bill and James, misguided GIs who serve their country and then find themselves lost and angry in Nothing-to-do Arizona; two Vietnamese military men, one from the South and one from the North, whose allegiances flip this way and that; about another intelligence officer named Storm, whose existence seems to be one long vision quest; and finally it’s about a Canadian woman named Kathy, a Seventh-Day Adventist and aid worker, who winds up bearing much of the book’s considerable grief. For all the story lines, the structure couldn’t be simpler: it’s divided into sections by year, from 1963 (the book opens in the Philippines: “Last night at 3:00 a.m. President Kennedy had been killed”) to 1970, ending with a coda set in 1983. People familiar with the Vietnam War will recognize its arc-the Tet offensive; the deaths of Martin Luther King and RFK; the fall of Saigon, swift and seemingly predetermined.
The book reads like a collage of a series of episodes put together. The characters ponder over a bewildering array of philosophical, spiritual, metaphysical and religious questions. Even the title of the novel itself- Tree of Smoke- can be traced to the Bible. The book is full of nearly perfect sentences and observations like “She had nothing in this world but her two hands and her crazy love for Jesus, who seemed, for his part, never to have heard of her.” Two drunken soldiers, one of them an amputee, have a long, inane conversation, during which the disabled one announces, “My invisible foot hurts.” Later, the other soldier weeps “like a barking dog.” In the novel’s coda, Storm, a war cliché far gone and deep in the Malaysian jungle near Thailand, attends preparations for a village’s sacrificial bonfire (consisting of personal items smashed and axed by their owners) and offers himself as “compensation, baby.” When the book ends, in a heartbreaking soliloquy from Kathy on the occasion of a war orphan benefit in a Minneapolis Radisson, you feel that America’s Vietnam experience has been brought to a closure that’s as good as we’ll ever get. Despite the novel’s hefty length, I found myself wishing it were longer, wishing that it wouldn’t end. I know many of you might be wary of committing to a book of such length, but Tree of Smoke is completely and wholly worth your time.