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Tree of Smoke

Tree of Smoke

3.6 30
by Denis Johnson

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Tree of Smoke is the 2007 National Book Award Winner for Fiction.

One of the New York Times 10 Best Books of the Year

Named a Best Book of the Year by Time, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, Salon, Slate


Tree of Smoke is the 2007 National Book Award Winner for Fiction.

One of the New York Times 10 Best Books of the Year

Named a Best Book of the Year by Time, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, Salon, Slate, The National Book Critics Circle, The Christian Science Monitor. . . .

Tree of Smoke is the story of William "Skip" Sands, CIA--engaged in Pschological Operations against the Vietcong--and the disasters that befall him. It is also the story of the Houston brothers, Bill and James, young men who drift out of the Arizona desert and into a war where the line between disinformation and delusion has blurred away. In the words of Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times, Tree of Smoke is "bound to become one of the classic works of literature produced by that tragic and uncannily familiar war."

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Denis Johnson is a true American artist, and Tree of Smoke is a tremendous book.” —The New York Times Book Review

“The God I want to believe in has a voice and a sense of humor like Denis Johnson's.” —Jonathan Franzen

“I can't be sure that there's been a better American novel published in the past ten years. It is a masterpiece.” —The Miami Herald

“It will . . . get inside your head like the war it is describing--mystifying, horrifying, mesmerizing. [Johnson] has written a book that by the end wraps around you as tightly as a snake.” —The Washington Post Book World

Tree of Smoke is a masterpiece of language and depth.” —San Francisco Chronicle

“Johnson has captured the zeitgeist of American experience as surely as Twain, Hemingway, or Ellison.” —New York Post

“Opens a window onto a world of mystery, war, and intrigue whose importance in the (usually) unwritten history of our republic can't be denied.” —Chicago Tribune

“Johnson has written his War and Peace.” —Harper's Magazine

Denis Johnson parses the tragedy of Vietnam in a magnum opus (his first full-length novel in nine years) inscribed with all the pain and sadness, loneliness and futility surrounding that misbegotten war. At the center of a Dickensian cast of characters stand a CIA recruit working under deepest cover, his famous uncle (a legend in intelligence circles), a widowed Canadian nurse, and a pair of G.I. brothers who have traded in the desolation of their dead-end lives for the nightmare of war. Unfolding like a fever dream, Tree of Smoke captures a uniquely turbulent time in powerful images that linger long after the story ends. As he has done so many times before, Johnson shines a light into the darkest corners of the human soul and shows us, finally, where redemption truly lies.
David Ignatius
To write a fat novel about the Vietnam War nearly 35 years after it ended is an act of literary bravado. To do so as brilliantly as Denis Johnson has in Tree of Smoke is positively a miracle. This novel makes large demands on the reader: to submit to its length, to its disorienting language and structure, to the elusive and shattering experience of its characters, and finally to its sheer ambition to be definitive an encompassing novel for the Vietnam generation. It is a presumptuous book, in other words, and you may resist for the first several hundred pages. But it will grab you eventually, and gets inside your head like the war it is describing—mystifying, horrifying, mesmerizing. Johnson, a poet, ex-junkie and adventure journalist, has written a book that by the end wraps around you as tightly as a jungle snake.
—The Washington Post
Jim Lewis
Good morning and please listen to me: Denis Johnson is a true American artist, and Tree of Smoke is a tremendous book, a strange entertainment, 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. It comes with the armor and accoutrements of a Major Novel: big historical theme (Vietnam), semi-mythical cultural institution (military intelligence), long time span (1963-70, with a coda set in 1983) and unreasonable length (614 pages), all of which would be off-putting if this were not, in fact, a major novel, and if Johnson's last big book hadn't been the small collection of eccentric and addictive short stories called Jesus’ Son (1992). Tree of Smoke is a soulful book, even a numinous one…and it ought to secure Johnson's status as a revelator for this still new century…
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

If this novel, Johnson's first in nearly a decade, is-as the promo copy says-about Skip Sands, it's also about his uncle, a legendary CIA operative; Kathy Jones, a widowed, saintly Canadian nurse; Trung, a North Vietnamese spy; and the Houston brothers, Bill and James, misguided GIs who haunt the story's periphery. And it's also about Sgt. Jimmy Storm, whose existence seems to be one long vision quest. As with all of Johnson's work-the stories in Jesus' Son, novels like Resuscitation of a Dead Manand Fiskadoro-the real point is the possibility of grace in a world of total mystery and inexplicable suffering. In Johnson's honest world, no one story dominates.

For all the story lines, the structure couldn't be simpler: each year, from 1963 (the book opens in the Philippines: "Last night at 3:00 a.m. President Kennedy had been killed") to 1970, gets its own part, followed by a coda set in 1983. Readers familiar with the Vietnam War will recognize its arc-the Tet offensive (65 harrowing pages here); the deaths of Martin Luther King and RFK; the fall of Saigon, swift and seemingly foreordained.

Skip is a CIA recruit working under his uncle, Francis X. Sands, known as the Colonel. Skip is mostly in the dark, awaiting direction, living under an alias and falling in love with Kathy while the Colonel deals in double agents, Bushmills whiskey and folk history. He's a soldier-scholar pursuing theories of how to purify an information stream; he bloviates in gusts of sincerity and blasphemy, all of it charming. A large cast of characters, some colorful, some vaguely chalked, surround this triad, and if Tree of Smokehas a flaw, it is that some characters arevirtually indistinguishable. Given the covert nature of much of the goings-on, perhaps it is necessary that characters become blurred. "We're on the cutting edge of reality itself," says Storm. "Right where it turns into a dream."

Is this our last Vietnam novel? One has to wonder. What serious writer, after tuning in to Johnson's terrifying, dissonant opera, can return with a fresh ear? The work of many past chroniclers- Graham Greene, Tim O'Brien, the filmmakers Coppola,Cimino and Kubrick, all of whom have contributed to our cultural "understanding" of the war-is both evoked and consumed in the fiery heat of Johnson's story. In the novel's coda, Storm, a war cliché now way 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 (fittingly, a Canadian) 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.

Michael Coffey isPW's executive managing editor.

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

This major Vietnam novel depicts the era's distinctive psychedelic brutality, the ineptitude of the U.S. military effort, and the otherworldly theater of the "intelligence" operations surrounding the politics of the war. Skip Sands is starting out in the hazy world of the CIA under the tutelage of his uncle, Col. F.X. Sands, a veteran of World War II and many years of mercenary covert actions. They are involved in an assassination in the Philippines, where the novel begins in November 1963, and then move on to Vietnam. There, the Colonel sets up an undercover situation for Skip. Whether the Colonel is a rogue agent gone over the edge is open to question. Down at the bottom of the command chain are the brothers Houston, Bill Jr. and James, members of the alcoholic, sociopathic underclass of rural and Bible Belt America last seen in Johnson's Angels. It is these characters with whom the author seems truly in touch. Moving chronologically, the novel proceeds into the late Sixties, when the war seems not so much lost as running down on the political, military, and cultural energy powering it earlier. Ugly and fascinating, with many shattering scenes, this long work may seem familiar to fans of Apocalypse Nowbut is nevertheless gripping. Recommended for all fiction collections. [See Prepub Alert, LJ5/15/07.]
—Jim Coan

Product Details

Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.40(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter one

Last night at 3:00 a.m. President Kennedy had been killed. Seaman Houston and the other two recruits slept while the first reports traveled around the world. There was one small nightspot on the island, a dilapidated club with big revolving fans in the ceiling and one bar and one pinball game; the two marines who ran the club had come by to wake them up and tell themwhat had happened to the President. The two marines sat with the three sailors on the bunks in the Quonset hut for transient enlisted men, watching the air conditioner drip water into a coffee can and drinking beer. The Armed Forces Network from Subic Bay stayed on through the night, broadcasting bulletins about the unfathomable murder.


Now it was late in the morning, and Seaman Apprentice William Houston, Jr., began feeling sober again as he stalked the jungle of Grande Island carrying a borrowed. 22- caliber file. There were supposed to be some wild boars roaming this island military resort, which was all he had seen so far of the Philippines. He didn’t know how he felt about this country. He justwanted to do some hunting in the jungle. There were supposed to be some wild boars around here.


He stepped carefully, thinking about snakes and trying to be quiet because he wanted to hear any boars before they charged him. He was aware that he was terrifically on edge. From all around came the ten thousand sounds of the jungle, as well as the cries of gulls and the far- off surf, and if he stopped dead and listened a minute, he could hear also the pulse snickering in the heat of his flesh, and the creak of sweat in his ears. If he stayed motionless only another couple of seconds, the bugs found him and whined around his head.


He propped the rifle against a stunted banana plant and removed his headband and wrung it out and wiped his face and stood there awhile, waving away the mosquitoes with the cloth and itching his crotch absent- mindedly. Nearby, a seagull seemed to be carrying on an argument with itself, a series of protesting squeaks interrupted by contradictory lower- pitched criesthat sounded like, Huh! Huh! Huh! And something moving from one tree to another caught Seaman Houston’s eye.


He kept his vision on the spot where he’d seen it among the branches of a rubber tree, putting his hand out for the rifle without altering the direction of his gaze. It moved again. Now he saw that it was some sort of monkey, not much bigger thana Chihuahua dog. Not precisely a wild boar, but it presented itself as something to be looked at, clinging by its left hand and both feet to the tree’s trunk and digging at the thin rind with an air of tiny, exasperated haste. Seaman Houston took the monkey’s meager back under the rifle’s sight. He raised the barrel a few degrees and took the monkey’s head into the sight. Without really thinking about anything at all, he squeezed the trigger.


The monkey flattened itself out against the tree, spreading its arms and legs enthusiastically, and then, reaching around with both hands as if trying to scratch its back, it tumbled down to the ground. Seaman Houston was terrified to witness its convulsions there. It hoisted itself, pushing off the ground with one arm, and sat back against the tree trunk with its legs spread out before it, like somebody resting from a difficult job of labor.


Seaman Houston took himself a few steps nearer, and, from the distance of only a few yards, he saw that the monkey’s fur was very shiny and held a henna tint in the shadows and a blond tint in the light, as the leaves moved above it. It looked from side to side, its breath coming in great rapid gulps, its belly expanding tremendously with every breath like a balloon.The shot had been low, exiting from the abdomen.


Seaman Houston felt his own stomach tear itself in two. “Jesus Christ!” he shouted at the monkey, as if it might do something about its embarrassing and hateful condition. He thought his head would explode, if the forenoon kept burning into the jungle all around him and the gulls kept screaming and the monkey kept regarding its surroundings carefully, moving its headand black eyes from side to side like someone following the progress of some kind of conversation, some kind of debate, some kind of struggle that the jungle—the morning—the moment— was having with itself. Seaman Houston walked over to the monkeyand laid the rifle down beside it and lifted the animal up in his two hands, holding its buttocks in one and cradling its head with the other. With fascination, then with revulsion, he realized that the monkey was crying. Its breath came out in sobs, and tears welled out of its eyes when it blinked. It looked here and there, appearing no more interested in him than in anything else it might be seeing. “Hey,” Houston said, but the monkey didn’t seem to hear.


As he held the animal in his hands, its heart stopped beating. He gave it a shake, but he knew it was useless. He felt as if everything was all his fault, and with no one around to know about it, he let himself cry like a child. He was eighteen years old. When he got back to the club down near the water, Houston saw that a school of violet- tinted jellyfish had washed up on the gray beach, hundreds of them, each about the size of a person’s hand, translucent and shriveling under the sun.The island’s small harbor lay empty. No boats ever came here other than the ferry from the naval base across Subic Bay.


Only a few yards off, a couple of bamboo cabins fronted the strip of sand beneath palatial trees dribbling small purple blooms onto their roofs. From inside one of the cabins came the cries of a couple making love, a whore, Seaman Houston assumed, and some sailor. Houston squatted in the shade and listened until he heard them giggling no more, breathing no more, and a lizard in the cabin’s eaves began to call—a brief annunciatory warble and then a series of harsh, staccato chuckles—gek- ko; gek- ko; gek- ko . . .


After a while the man came out, a crew- cut man in his forties with a white towel hitched under his belly and a cigarette clamped between his front teeth, and stood there splayfooted, holding the towel together at his hip with one hand, staring at some close but invisible thing, and swaying. An officer, probably. He took his cigarette between his thumb and finger anddrew on it and let out a fog around his face. “Another mission accomplished.”


The neighboring cabin’s front door opened and a Filipina, naked, hand over her groin, said, “He don’t like to do it.”


The officer shouted, “Hey, Lucky.”


A small Asian man came to the door, fully dressed in military fatigues.


“You didn’t give her a jolly old time?”


The man said, “It could be bad luck.”


“Karma,” the officer said.


“It could be,” the little fellow said.


To Houston the officer said, “You looking for a beer?”


Houston had meant to be off. Now he realized that he’d forgotten to leave and that the man was talking to him. With his free hand the man tossed his smoke and snaked aside the drape of the towel. To Houston he said—as he loosed almost straight downward a stream that foamed on the earth, destroying his cigarette butt—“You see something worth looking at, you let me know.”


Feeling a fool, Houston went into the club. Inside, two young Filipinas in bright flowered dresses were playing pinball and talking so fast, while the large fans whirled above them, that Seaman Houston felt his equilibrium give. Sam, one of the marines, stood behind the bar. “Shut up, shut up,” he said. He lifted his hand, in which he happened to be holding a spatula.


“What’d I say?” Houston asked.


“Excuse.” Sam tilted his head toward the radio, concentrating on its sound like a blind man. “They caught the guy.”


“They said that before breakfast. We knew that.”


“There’s more about him.”


“Okay,” Houston said.


He drank some ice water and listened to the radio, but he suffered such a headache right now he couldn’t make out any of the words.


After a while the officer came in wearing a gigantic Hawaiian-print shirt, accompanied by the young Asian.


“Colonel, they caught him,” Sam told the officer. “His name is Oswald.”


The colonel said, “What kind of name is that?”—apparently as outraged by the killer’s name as by his atrocity.


“Fucking sonofabitch,” Sam said.


“The sonofabitch,” said the colonel. “I hope they shoot his balls off. I hope they shoot him up the ass.” Wiping at his tears without embarrassment he said, “Is Oswald his first name or his last name?”


Houston told himself that first he’d seen this officer pissing on the ground, and now he was watching him cry.


To the young Asian, Sam said, “Sir, we’re hospitable as hell. But generally Philippine military aren’t served here.”


“Lucky’s from Vietnam,” the colonel said.


“Vietnam. You lost?”


“No, not lost,” the man said.


“This guy,” the colonel said, “is already a jet pilot. He’s a South Viet Nam Air Force captain.”


Sam asked the young captain, “Well, is it a war over there, or what? War?—budda- budda- budda.” He made his two hands into a submachine gun, jerking them in unison. “Yes? No?”


The captain turned from the American, formed the phrases in his mind, practiced them, turned back, and said, “I don’t know it’s war. A lot people are dead.”


“That’ll do,” the colonel agreed. “That counts.”


“What you doing here?”


“I’m here for helicopters training,” the captain said.


“You don’t look hardly old enough for a tricycle,” Sam said.


“How old are you?”


“Twenty-two years.”


“I’m getting this little Slope his beer. You like San Miguel? You mind that I called you a Slope? It’s a bad habit.”


“Call him Lucky,” the colonel said. “The man’s buying, Lucky. What’s your poison?”


The boy frowned and deliberated inside himself mysteriously and said, “I like Lucky Lager.”


“And what kind of cigarettes you smoke?” the colonel asked.


“I like the Lucky Strike,” he said, and everybody laughed.


Suddenly Sam looked at young Seaman Houston as if just recognizing him and said, “Where’s my rifle?”


For a heartbeat Houston had no idea what he might be talking about. Then he said, “Shit.”


“Where is it?” Sam didn’t seem terribly interested—just curious.


“Shit,” Seaman Houston said. “I’ll get it.”


He had to go back into the jungle. It was just as hot, and just as damp. All the same animals were making the same noises, and the situation was just as terrible, he was far from the places of his memory, and the navy still had him for two more years, and the President, the President of his country, was still dead—but the monkey was gone. Sam’s rifle lay in the brush just as he’d left it, and the monkey was nowhere. Something had carried it off. He had expected to be made to see it again; so he was relieved to be walking back to the club without having to look at what he’d done. Yet he understood, without much alarm or unease, that he wouldn’t be spared this sight forever.


Seaman Houston was promoted once, and then demoted. He glimpsed some of Southeast Asia’s great capitals, walked through muggy nights in which streetside lanterns shook in the stale breezes, but he never landed long enough to lose his sea legs, only long enough to get confused, to see the faces flickering and hear the suffering laughter. When his tour was up he enlisted for another, enchanted above all by the power to create his destiny just by signing his name.


Houston had two younger brothers. The nearest to him in age, James, enlisted in the infantry and was sent to Vietnam, and one night just before the finish of his second tour in the navy, Houston took a train from the naval base in Yokosuka, Japan, to the city of Yokohama, where he and James had arranged to meet at the Peanut Bar. It was 1967, more than three years after the murder of John F. Kennedy.


In the train car Houston felt gigantic, looking over the heads of pitch- black hair. The little Japanese passengers stared at him without mirth, without pity, without shame, until he felt as if his throat were being twisted. He got off, and kept himself on a straight path through the late drizzle by following wet streetcar tracks to the Peanut Bar. He looked forward to saying something in English.


The Peanut Bar was large and crowded with sailors and with scrubbed- looking boy merchant marines, and the voices were thick in his head, the smoke thick in his lungs.


He found James near the stage and went over to him, holding his hand out for a shake. “I’m leaving Yokosuka, man! I’m back on a ship!” was the first thing he said.


The band drowned out his greeting—a quartet of Japanese Beatles imitators in blinding white outfits, with fringe. James, in civvies, sat at a little table staring at them, unaware of anything but this spectacle, and Bill fired a peanut at his open mouth.


James indicated the performers. “That’s gotta be ridiculous.” He had to shout to make himself even faintly audible.


“What can I say? This ain’t Phoenix.”


“Almost as ridiculous as you in a sailor suit.”


“They let me out two years ago, and I re- upped. I don’t know—I just did it.”


“Were you loaded?”


“I was pretty loaded, yeah.”


Bill Houston was amazed to find his brother no longer a little boy. James wore a flattop haircut that made his jaw look wide and strong, and he sat up straight, no fidgeting around. Even in civilian dress he looked like a soldier.


They ordered beer by the pitcher and agreed that except for a few strange things, like the Peanut Bar, they both liked Japan—though James had spent, so far, six hours in the country between flights, and in the morning would board another plane for Vietnam—or at any rate, they both approved of the Japanese. “I’m here to tell you,” Bill said when the band went on break and their voices could be heard, “these Japs have got it all plumb, level, and square. Meanwhile, in the tropics, man, nothing but shit. Everybody’s brain is boiled fat mush.”


“That’s what they tell me. I guess I’ll find out.”


“What about the fighting?”


“What about it?”


“What do they say?”


“Mostly they say you’re just shooting at trees, and the trees are shooting back.”


“But really. Is it pretty bad?”


“I guess I’ll find out.”


“Are you scared?”


“During training, I seen a guy shoot another guy by accident.”




“In the ass, if you can believe it. It was just an accident.”


Bill Houston said, “I saw a guy murder a guy in Honolulu.”


“What, in a fight?”


“Well, this sonofabitch owed this other sonofabitch money.”


“What was it, in a bar?”


“No. Not in a bar. The guy went around back of his apartment building and called him to the window. We were walking past the place and he says, ‘Hang on, I gotta talk to this guy about a debt.’ They talked one minute and then the guy I was with—he shot the other one. Put his gun right against the window screen, man, and pop, one time, like that. Forty- five automatic. The guy kind of fell back inside his apartment.”


“You gotta be kidding.”


“No. I ain’t kidding.”


“Are you serious? You were there?”


“We were just walking around. I had no idea he was gonna kill someone.”


“What’d you do?”


“Just about filled my britches with poop. He turns around and sticks his gun under his shirt and, ‘Hey, let’s get some brew.’ Like the incident is erased.”


“What was your comment about all this?”


“It kind of felt like I didn’t want to mention it.”


“I know—like, shit, what do you say?”


“You can bet I was wondering what he thought about me as a witness. That’s why I missed the sailing. He was on our rig. If I’d shipped out with him, I’d’ve gone eight weeks without closing both eyes.”


The brothers drank from their mugs simultaneously and then sought, each in his own mind, for something to talk about. “When that guy got shot in the ass,” James said, “he went into shock immediately.”


“Shit. How old are you?”






“Almost eighteen,” James said.


“The army let you enlist when you’re only seventeen?”


“Nope. I done lied.”


“Are you scared?”


“Yeah. Not every minute.”


“Not every minute?”


“I haven’t seen any fighting. I want to see it, the real deal, the real shit. I just want to.”


“Crazy little fucker.”


The band resumed with a number by the Kinks called “You Really Got Me”:


You really got me—


You really got me—


You really got me—


Before very much longer the two brothers got into an argument with each other over nothing, and Bill Houston spilled a pitcher of beer right into the lap of somebody at the next table—a Japanese girl, who hunched her shoulders and looked sad and humiliated.


She sat with a girlfriend and also two American men, two youngsters who didn’t know how to react.


The beer dribbled off the table’s edge while James fumbled to right the empty pitcher, saying, “It gets like this sometimes. It just does.”


The young girl made no move at all to adjust herself. She stared at her lap.


“What’s wrong with us,” James asked his brother, “are we fucked up or something? Every time we get together, something bad happens.”


“I know.”


“Something fucked-up.”


“Fucked- up, shitty, I know. Because we’re family.”


“We’re blood.”


“None of that shit don’t matter to me no more.”


“It must matter some,” James insisted, “or else why’d you haul yourself all this way to meet me in Yokohama?”


“Yeah,” Bill said, “in the Peanut Bar.”


“The Peanut Bar!”


“And why’d I miss my ship?”


James said, “You missed your ship?”


“I should’ve been on her at four this afternoon.”


“You missed it?”


“She might still be there. But I expect they’re out of the harbor by now.”


Bill Houston felt his eyes flood with tears, choked with sudden emotion at his life and this place with everybody driving on the left.


James said, “I never liked you.”


“I know. Me too.”


“Me too.”


“I always thought you were a little-dick sonofabitch,” Bill said.


“I always hated you,” his brother said.


“God, I’m sorry,” Bill Houston said to the Japanese girl. He dragged some money from his wallet and tossed it onto the wet table, a hundred yen or a thousand yen, he couldn’t see which.


“It’s my last year in the navy,” he explained to the girl. He would have thrown down more, but his wallet was empty. “I came across this ocean and died. They might as well bring back my bones. I’m all different.”


The afternoon of that November day in 1963, the day after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Captain Nguyen Minh, the young Viet Nam Air Force pilot, dove with a mask and snorkel just off the shore of Grande Island. This was a newfound passion. The experience came close to what the birds of the air must enjoy, drifting above a landscape, propelled by the action of their own limbs, actually flying, as opposed to piloting a machine. The webbed fins strapped to his feet gave him a lot of thrust as he scooted above a vast school of parrot fish feeding on a reef, the multitude of their small beaks pattering against the coral like a shower of rain. American Navy men enjoyed scuba and skin- diving and had torn up all the coral and made the fish very timid so that the entire school disappeared in a blink when he swam near.


Minh wasn’t much of a swimmer, and without others around he could let himself feel as afraid as he actually was.


He’d passed all the previous night with the prostitute the colonel had paid for. The girl had slept on the floor and he in the bed. He hadn’t wanted her. He wasn’t sure about these Filipino people.


Then today, toward the end of the morning, they’d gone into the club to learn that the President of the United States, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, had been murdered. The two Filipinas were still with them, and each girl took one of the colonel’s substantial arms and held on as if keeping him moored to the earth while he brought his surprise and grief under control. They sat at a table all morning and listened to the news reports. “For God’s sake,” the colonel said. “For God’s sake.” By afternoon the colonel had cheered up and the beer was going down and down. Minh tried not to drink very much, but he wanted to be polite,and he got very dizzy. The girls disappeared, they came back, the fan went around in the ceiling. A very young naval recruit joined them and somebody asked Minh if a war was actually being waged somewhere in Vietnam.


That night the colonel wanted to switch girls, and Minh determined that he would follow through as he had last night, just to make the colonel happy and to show him that he was sincerely grateful. This second girl was the one he preferred, in anycase. She was prettier to his eyes and spoke better English. But the girl asked to have the air conditioner on. He wanted it off. He couldn’t hear things with the air conditioner going. He liked the windows open. He liked the sound of insects batting against the screens. They didn’t have such screens in his family’s house on the Mekong Delta, or even in his uncle’s home in Saigon.


“What do you want?” the girl said. She was very contemptuous of him.


“I don’t know,” he said. “Take off your clothes.”


They took off their clothes and lay side by side on the double bed in the dark, and did nothing else. He could hear an American sailor a few doors down talking to one of his friends loudly, perhaps telling a story. Minh couldn’t understand a word of it, though he considered his own English pretty fair.


“The colonel has a big one.” The girl was fondling his penis. “Is he your friend?”


Minh said, “I don’t know.”


“You don’t know is he your friend? Why are you with him?”


“I don’t know.”


“When did you know him the first time?”


“Just one or two weeks.”


“Who is he?” she said.


Minh said, “I don’t know.” To stop her touching his groin, he clasped her to him.


“You just want body-body?” she said.


“What does it mean?” he said.


“Just body-body,” she said. She got up and shut the window. She felt the air conditioner with the palm of her hand, but didn’t touch its dials. “Gimme a cigarette,” she said.


“No. I don’t have any cigarette,” he said.


She threw her dress on over her head, slipped her feet into her sandals. She wore no underclothes. “Gimme a coupla quarters,” she said.


“What does it mean?” he said.


“What does it mean?” she said. “What does it mean? Gimme a coupla quarters. Gimme a coupla quarters.”


“Is it money?” he said. “How much is it?”


“Gimme a coupla quarters,” she said. “I wanna see if he gonnasell me some cigarette. I wanna coupla pack cigarette—a pack for me, and one pack for my cousin. Two pack.”


“The colonel can do it,” he said.


“One Weenston. One Lucky Strike.”


“Excuse me. It’s chilly to night,” he said. He got up and put his clothes on.


He stepped out front. From behind him he heard the small sounds of the young woman inside dealing with her purse, setting it on a table. She clapped and rubbed her hands and a puff of perfume drifted past him from the open window and he inhaled it. His ears rang, and tears clouded his sight. He cleared a thickness from his throat, hung his head, spat down between his feet. He missed his homeland.


When he’d first joined the air force and then been transferred to Da Nang and into officers’ training, only seventeen, he’dcried every night in his bed for several weeks. He’d been flying fighter jets for nearly three years now, since he was nineteen years old. Two months ago he’d turned twenty- two, and he could expect to continue flying missions until the one that killed him.


Later he sat on the porch in a canvas chair, leaning forward, forearms on his knees, smoking—he actually did possess a packof Luckies—when the colonel returned from the club with his arms around both the girls. Minh’s escort had a pack in her hand and waved it happily.


“So you explored the briny deeps today.”


Minh wasn’t sure what he meant. He said, “Yes.”


“Ever been down there in any of those tunnels?” the colonel asked.


“What is it?—tunnels.”


“Tunnels,” the colonel said. “Tunnels all under Vietnam. You been down inside those things?”


“Not yet. I don’t think so.”


“Nor have I, son,” the colonel said. “I wonder what’s down there.”


“I don’t know.”


“Nobody does,” the colonel said.


“The cadres use the tunnels,” Minh said. “The Vietminh.”


Now the colonel seemed to grieve for his President again, because he said, “This world spits out a beautiful man like he was poison.”


Minh had noticed you could talk to the colonel for a long time without recognizing he was drunk.


He’d met the colonel only a few mornings back, out front of the helicopter maintenance yard at the Subic base, and they’d sought each other out continually ever since. The colo nel had not been introduced to him—the colonel had introduced himself—and didn’t appear to be linked to him in any official way. They were housed together with dozens of other transient officers in a barracks in a compound originally constructed and then quickly abandoned, according to the colonel, by the AmericanCentral Intelligence Agency.


Minh knew the colonel was one to stick with. Minh had a custom of picking out situations, people, as good luck, bad luck. He drank Lucky Lager, he smoked Lucky Strikes. The colonel called him “Lucky.”


“John F. Kennedy was a beautiful man,” the colonel said. “That’s what killed him.”


Excerpted from Tree of Smoke.By Denis Johnson.

Copyright © 2007 by Denis Johnson.

Published in the United in the United States by Farrar, Starus and Giroux.

All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the publisher.

Meet the Author

Denis Johnson is the author of eight novels, one novella, one book of short stories, three collections of poetry, two collections of plays, and one book of reportage. His novel Tree of Smoke won the 2007 National Book Award.

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Tree of Smoke 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 29 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This novel is long, yes, but not so intricate that you have to keep puzzling out passages and piecing together connections. That's not to say that this is not an excellent novel or that it is not difficult. I just want all potential readers to know that this is a book that will take hold of you and you will want to keep reading to the end. I read this novel in a week and I was completely taken into Johnson's storyworld. Coincidentally, I also read The Quiet American by Graham Greene this summer, just before picking up Tree of Smoke. I would recommend reading The Quiet American before Tree of Smoke, just to get a taste of the same themes and subjects that Denis Johnson tackles in his novel. All the major characters in Johnson's novel are worth reading about. Religion has a large place in this novel as well, just like in Greene's fiction, but I liked how religion was dealt with separately by all characters in different perspectives. For example, Trung thinks he remembers something Confucius supposedly said, 'I can't beat a sculpture from a stone with a sledgehammer I can't free the soul of a man by violence.' That's a memorable line that has stuck with me. There are also memorable parts of the novel where Carignan ruminates about Judas and readers witness Kathy's obsession with Calvin. These are all bits of the novel that remain with you long after you put the book down. That's the best endorsement I can give a novel. The time and attention you put into Johnson's work is paid back in full. You walk from his storyworld back into your life with a better understanding of yourself and the world around you. That's fiction's gift and Johnson has given us a gift as well.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Interesting. Captivating. Yet, unconventional and fresh. Denis Johnson's ¿Tree of Smoke¿ is a beautiful depiction of the Vietnam War. Battles and gore are outside the conflict facing the corps of soldiers, peace workers, double agents, and citizens. The slow whirl of emotion only leads to a boggling turn of events at the very, very end of the story. Vietnam is viewed through an unseen perspective in ¿Tree of Smoke.¿ I would celebrate this novel, but the somber, empty, inevitably guilt concluded in ¿Tree of Smoke¿ is, despite my feverish searches, outside my realm of description.
I am unaware of Johnson's previous works, but this book stirs curiosity. Curiosity for revelation. This isn't Denis Johnson's break out story. The tree of smoke he has surrounded himself with has successfully deterred any attraction from me. His work isn't Orwell (¿1984,¿) Huxley (¿Brave New World,¿) or Bradbury (¿Fahrenheit 451,¿) but ¿Tree of Smoke¿ has the same timeless effect. No, it doesn't discuss future revolution and oppression. However, it does show, patriotically, the wonders and woe of the only war America has lost. ¿Tree of Smoke¿ provides insight to the things that may not matter now, but will, in copious amounts, in the future.
¿Tree of Smoke¿ feels like an all out ¿hoo-ah¿ army novel. War is ugly, in more ways than one. Its affect on the physical is well noted throughout history. However, deeper than the tunnels beneath Vietnam, and more complex than what the tunnels contain, no book but ¿Tree of Smoke,¿ ventures into the purely emotional affects of war. The pain of written words will hold the reader captive, unable to escape the text of Johnson's ¿Tree of Smoke.¿ Tweaking our soul, we kill the monkey, then cry, and feel guilt. The characters are at our discretion, when we become bored with their angle we are thrown into a new one.
Johnson creates a Newton Cradle of character development. Intertwined into this novel the ideas bounce endlessly. Skip Sands spends most of his time trying to find himself. His role is an undetermined, rather ¿self- authorized,¿ C.I.A. Agent. Skip contacts every one of the co-characters in the story. He is, fortunately, the nephew of a big time colonel. Colonel Sands, too, is in his own world, working a private operation that won't bite back at him. Coincidentally, it will bite every character that we crawl, cure, and adulterate with. Bill Junior and James, veterans, who are discharged, (implicitly dishonorable) feel the pain of war well after returning to home¿. Storm, a determined agent, the litmus, balances the confusion of the C.I.A. Ops in Vietnam. Finally, Kathy, a god loving, aid worker shows that the war lives on even years after departure. She is given the ¿..final pages to mourn.¿
Excellence is never obtained. Johnson taps into it, but doesn't obtain. ¿. Over-coddling the aspects of drinking, sleeping around, and drugs, left me, an innocent reader, in a puddle of confusion. I'm sure this aspect enhanced the tone of the story, but may leave the pious reader on the curb looking in¿
¿Tree of Smoke¿ is found in the Garden of Eden. I recommend all to view its beauty. In fair warning, do not bite into this novel deeply. The grief is contagious, and ¿Tree of Smoke¿ will beg you to devote more, and more. A truly eye-opening novel, but should only to be read by the curious and hard-nosed. When the 614 pages end, you will find yourself anxiously waiting for the silver spheres of Vietnam to bounce one final time.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A remarkable novel. My first encounter with Denis Johnson has certainly driven me to purchase and read more of his work. Understand that this is not an easy novel (nor a small one). It disturbs, amuses and compels all at once.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Denis Johnson's newest novel, 'Tree of Smoke' has been lauded as a veritable masterpiece. In fact, the liner blurb asserts it is 'unique' in all literature. With high expectations of a seismic-level reading experience, I pre-ordered this book and carefully read it, even reading some sections twice. As with his previous novels, 'Angels', most particularly, Johnson excels in the descriptions of the hard-luck, 'down-and-out' American and his raw depictions of this segment of Americana are hard to beat. Having grown up in Phoenix, Arizona during the era depicted in this book, I found his scenes on Van Buren Street both familiar and strange: I saw all the things he saw, but never analyzed them in this manner. Thus, the gift of a true writer. I knew some people in Phoenix who could have been models for the Houston brothers, complete with their war experiences in Viet Nam and could only marvel at the veracity of Johnson's depictions of these characters. The book stumbles and falls with the Viet Nam war sequences. By now, this 'police action' has been mythologized as 'war on acid', with zoned-out psycho soldiers who fragged their officers, military staff and policy makers who inhabited parallel universes making decisions accordingly and exploited 'natives' prone to sphinx-like utterances that were doubtlessly profound, if intelligible...which they usually weren't. Johnson follows this model perfectly. He does so right down to borrowing the characters of Colonel F. X. Sands, a Coppola/'Apocalypse-Now'/'Heart of Darkness' cypher, continuing the homage with psychedelic Sgt. J.S. Storm reprising the role played by Dennis Hopper of the crazed, stoned and idol-worshipping photographer. Some of the plot lines dangled in space and were left that way: why, for instance, did Sands order the execution of a European priest in the Huk insurrection? What role, exactly did the German BDD agent play: was he an independent contractor or was he in the service of the Federal Republic? Why tag Sands' nephew 'Skip' with the responsibility? The role of Skip more-or-less paralleled that of Captain Benjamin L. Willard, played by Martin Sheen' in 'Apocalypse Now' was a pastiche of pseudo-profound insights and pithy observations. Adding a new twist, Skip serves as a translator of Antonin Artaud during the many spare hours awaiting assignment: at least Capt. Willard used his off-time to good effect, to wit, getting insanely drunk. Finally, Skip's leap into insanity culminating in a gun-running conviction and execution were not justified by the character's development in the book. Storm's self-immolation during a bizarre native ritual could be excused as insanity, but it's timing, following the confirmation of the death of Col Sands by his maladroitly named confrere, Anders Pitchfork, is unbearably convenient. In summary, an interesting book. A masterpiece...well, no.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A highly acclaimed book that has been deemed sure to become one of the classic pieces of literature having to do with the Vietnam War deserves an outstanding narrator for the audiobook edition. That is precisely what was found in actor Will Patton. One of the busiest and most gifted performers in Hollywood, Patton has appeared in such standout films as Silkwood, The Client, and A Mighty Heart. Equally commanding on stage he has taken home two Obie Awards. His experience as a character actor is evident when he takes on the role of an old man or a person in extremis. It seems there is no one he cannot voice. If you've heard him read any stories set in the South, it is with these that he is in more than top form, embellishing the sounds of his native South Carolina. Having said all of this and after hearing his narration of Tree of Smoke, this listener totally agrees with Denis Johnson's description of Patton: 'I've worked with Will Patton on a couple of stage efforts, and I quickly developed the opinion he's not only one of the finest actors working today, but he also has a miraculous connection to the rhythms and the people and the language in my pieces.' Connect Patton does as he relates the odyssey of young, idealistic Skip Sands who seeks to prove his mettle as a CIA agent engaged in psychological warfare against the Vietcong. His hope are dashed as is his idealism. An important figure in Skip's life is his uncle, the Colonel, a war hero, who basks in that glory for a time until he, too, questions. Others caught up in the conflict are two brothers, Bill and James Houston, who find a war they cannot understand and would not have believed existed. There is also, Kathy, a widowed nurse. Compelling, gritty, unforgettable, powerful - Tree Of Smoke stands alone. - Gail Cooke
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I had to read this for school and it was challenging to say the least. Not only was this a really long book to start with, it was somewhat difficult to read. When characters started a conversation, I would have to re-read it a few times just to make sure I understood who said what. It was interesting as far as the story line went and I got into the minds of some of the characters, but it took me longer than I would have liked to finish it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Jurgen Kedesdy More than 1 year ago
A fine novel, perhaps a little long.
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The_Full_Crumb More than 1 year ago
First off please do not pay any attention to the two nitwits in the paperback reviews before me who rated this novel. I can only assume that they are the breed of the fast reads and the blueprints novels. This book is gut-wrenching, leaves blood on your hands, takes you to hell and back, but ultimately returns you right back to hell again. The characters are brilliantly rendered. I was each and everyone one of these characters in this novel. I felt what they felt. If you are looking for a novel with a happy silver-lining this book is not for you. This is American Existentialism about a war and a time that swallowed people into nothingness. There are many great questions this novel raises that can be applied to the U.S. and our engagement in the Gulf. What are our reasons for being there? What impact do we have with the people involved? What are the repercussions? This book will not answer that for you, but leaves every decision totally to your own opinion. I really appreciated how Johnson left any personal views or political slants out his story. This is by far one of the best novels I have read in years. I rank it up there with some of my favorite novels about war or revolution. I'll throw this in easily with Malraux's A Man's Fate, Celine's Journey to the End of the Night, Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, and Stephenson's Cryptonomicon. Amazing Amazing novel that I will continue to reflect and reread over the years! Thanks Denis Johnson!
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ClarkP More than 1 year ago
Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson is a masterpiece. This book provides more evidence that Johnson is one of the greatest writers at work today. Tree of Smoke captures the utter devastation of war. No one wins in war, and Denis Johnson has done a good job of portraying that in Tree of Smoke. Don't let the size of this book deter you from reading it, it is a fast read filled with great imagery and detail. Tree of Smoke is a must read for anyone who is interested in the Vietnam War. In all reality it is a must read for anyone who enjoys great books. Tree of Smoke is one of my all time favorite books. Thank you Mr. Johnson for writing a book worth my money and time.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I'm old enoough to remember the 20 years covered by this novel, and have seen lots of news reels, documentaries & films that cover the same span. This added nothing new, and seemed to keep the reader at arm's length from all the characters and actions. The novel refers to The Quiet American, by Graham Greene, which is so much its better. All the characters seemed not worth our caring from the beginning, and only went down from there. I'm not sure I learned anything about humanity, values, the history or place. And there wasn't really a plot or mystery or eventual disclosure to serve as a payoff for this collection of characters. There is a fair amount of dialogue & plot connection to a supposed 'Labyrinth' scheme by the Colonel, sometimes called the Tree of Smoke, and a Vietnamese double agent, but I was never able to tell what any of it was supposed to accomplish. Graham Greene & John Le Carre have written about this time and place and types of characters with so much more skill and heart. Read them instead. What was the point, just to show the reader that the war itself had no point? I wish the author had done so in fewer than 600 pages. This novel makes me seriously question the judgment of the National Book Award.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Not having read any of Denis Johnson's previous work, I bought this book because of the recommendations on the back jacket by Jonathan Franzen and Phillip Roth. Franzen's comment was particularly catchy 'I want to believe in a God who has a voice and a sense of humor like Denis Johnson', or something very close to that. I didn't purchase the book looking for humor, especially from the book's topic, nor did I find any. I'm not saying that left me unfulfilled in my experience. Franzen, I would imagine, is referring to the many unique cultural observations which fill the book. I was at once taken by the emotions of his characters to the assasination of John Kennedy, realizing they may have depicted the disillusions created by that defining moment in our history possibly better than any that I have ever previously read. Johnson brings his central characters to life in a way that easily justifies their thoughts and actions and illustrates the unintended casualties of war subtly. My reading of Vietnam war fiction is limited, but I feel that it is safe to say that Johnson has given us an intellectual novel that will console and inspire many, and also bring to light many questions that have no answers.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Any mention of the Vietnam conflict ¿ or better, war ¿ conjures a mood of calamity and heartbreak with little effort. In Tree of Smoke, Denis Johnson paints a comprehensive picture of the characters caught in the pain and pathos of the terrible event. Military and civilian persons alike are well described as they find themselves enmeshed in the frustration of a war that has no victory, in which each struggles for her or his own truth in a fog of unrelenting uncertainty and hopelessness. I found the book persistently sad, and yet that is exactly the mood which hovered over the war when it transpired. This is a superb work of literary fiction. Its considerable length is necessary, to allow the reader to sense and absorb the way each person is a casualty of that war, whether involved in direct fighting or in the emotional struggles which swirled through every day of every year it happened. I was privileged to listen to the entire novel on audio, read magnificently by Will Patton, who was able to portray the vast array of different personages with great skill. It is not hard to understand why this is one of the New York Times¿ ten best books of 2007.
Guest More than 1 year ago
tree of smoke reminds me of tim o'brien's 'going after cacciato'--another book i would highly recommend. the similarity is in good writing and a real grip on the futility and obsurdity of the vietnam war. of course, they part company in many ways, the most striking in the total lack of true friendship and loyality that is so present in o'brien's story. johnston's characters form no true friendships and no one tells the truth about anything--least of all to himself. it is a heart-breaking portrait of alienation, betrayal and a total withdrawal from the connections'decent' people make in the world away from vietnam. what is so amazing is that johnston brings wit and humor into this dismal microcosim of deception and brutality. i was stunned and deeply disturbed by the end and it was hard to shake myself free of it and re-enter a world of normalcy. an excellent, grand performance.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Exquisitely written but a little too long, this novel is well on its way to being considered ¿an original and classic¿. The novel begins with a senseless, needless and heartless shooting of a tiny, wild monkey, ¿not much bigger than a Chihuahua dog¿, by eighteen years old Seaman Apprentice William Houston. He was walking in the Grande Island of the Philippines, looking for a wild boar to hunt. He doesn¿t find a wild boar. He sees a harmless and helpless monkey in a tree, instead, and shoots it. When the fatally wounded monkey falls to the ground, he picks it up. Johnson writes, ¿With fascination, then with revulsion, he realized that the monkey was crying. Its breath came out in sobs, and tears welled out of its eyes when it blinked. It looked here and there, appearing no more interested in him than in anything else it might be seeing.¿ When I read the brief episode, the brutal and senseless killing of a harmless wild animal which was foraging for food and minding its own business - five paragraphs in all - I was quite outraged, at first. But soon it dawned upon me that, after all, this novel was about the Vietnam War and wasn¿t the Vietnam War needless, senseless, brutal and outrageous also? I calmed down and continued to read. The novel is about two brothers named William Houston and James Houston who serve in the military in the Vietnam War, and a CIA agent named Skip Sands, and his uncle Colonel Francis Sands, and another intelligence officer named Storm, a military man from South Vietnam named Hao, and Trung, a North Vietnamese spy, and a Canadian aid worker named Kathy Jones, a nurse who goes to Vietnam after her husband, a priest, is killed. Because of the author¿s digressive, ruminating and reflective style, the story at times is difficult to follow. The length of the novel '614 pages' is a hindrance also. The beauty of the novel lies mainly in Johnson¿s prose. Gripping, descriptive passages, vigorous and fascinating dialogues, and biting commentaries flow off the pages. His prose is lucid and smooth-flowing and almost poetic. Many of the sentences are as elegant and bewitching as these: ¿From all around came the ten thousand sounds of the jungle, as well as the cries of gulls and the far-off surf, and if he stopped dead and listened a minute, he could hear also the pulse snickering in the heat of his flesh, and the creak of sweat in his ears. If he stayed motionless only another couple of seconds, the bugs found him and whined around his head.¿ 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. But Johnson¿s keen observations of nature, and his ability to describe the wonders of nature with the magic of his pen, cast a spell on the reader and hold the reader¿s attention. At the end of the novel I felt as if I had been standing by the Niagara Falls at night, listening to the ear-splitting wails and roars of its dark, swirling, foamy water rushing towards its inevitable doom. And when I shut the book an extraordinary thing happened: I felt as if I was seeing a sliver of the moon emerging from dense, gray clouds in a dark, starless sky, its silvery light beginning to light up the gloomy sky. Denis Johnson is a masterful writer.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I would love to find the 'Tree of Smoke' referred to by other reviewers. It sounds like a terrific book. Unfortunately, the one I read was pretentious, rambling, overlong and populated with cardboard cutouts. I was also surprised to learn that America has been in decline since the early 1960¿s. That does a lot to explain this novel.