Tree of Smoke
  • Tree of Smoke
  • Tree of Smoke

Tree of Smoke

3.6 30
by Johnson

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Once upon a time there was a war . . . and a young American who thought of himself as the Quiet American and the Ugly American, and who wished to be neither, who wanted instead to be the Wise American, or the Good American, but who eventually came to witness himself as the Real American and finally as simply the Fucking American. That’s

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Once upon a time there was a war . . . and a young American who thought of himself as the Quiet American and the Ugly American, and who wished to be neither, who wanted instead to be the Wise American, or the Good American, but who eventually came to witness himself as the Real American and finally as simply the Fucking American. That’s me.

This is the story of Skip Sands—spy-in-training, engaged in Psychological Operations against the Vietcong—and the disasters that befall him thanks to his famous uncle, a war hero known in intelligence circles simply as the Colonel. This is also the story of the Houston brothers, Bill and James, young men who drift out of the Arizona desert into a war in which the line between disinformation and delusion has blurred away. In its vision of human folly, and its gritty, sympathetic portraits of men and women desperate for an end to their loneliness, whether in sex or death or by the grace of God, this is a story like nothing in our literature.

Tree of Smoke is Denis Johnson’s first full-length novel in nine years, and his most gripping, beautiful, and powerful work to date.

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

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Denis Johnson has delivered his masterpiece.”  —Chris Offutt


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


"Prose of amazing power and stylishness."  —Philip Roth

“Once Johnson gets his hooks into you—it takes about two sentences—it’s . . . pretty much impossible to stop reading.”   —David Gates, The New York Times Book Review

“An amazingly talented writer . . . We can hear Twain in his biting irony, Whitman in his erotic excess, not a little of Dashiell Hammett too in the hard sentences he throws back at his gouged, wounded world.” —Vince Passaro, Newsday

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
Alan Cheuse
For a reader with stamina, the rewards come steadily. Johnson is a fine stylist of the world of soulful disaster. The phrase "tree of smoke," as he presents it, is the literal translation from the Hebrew of the pillar in Exodus. This time -- in these pages -- that pillar of smoke leaves us to a dark, dark vision of a promised land.
—All Things Considered
Michiko Kakutani
Mr. Johnson not only succeeds in conjuring the anomalous, hallucinatory aura of the Vietnam War as authoritatively as Stephen Wright or Francis Ford Coppola, but he also shows its fallout on his characters with harrowing emotional precision�Bound to become one of the classic works of literature produced by that tragic and uncannily familiar war.
—The New York Times Book Review
David Ulin
It's beautiful writing: with Johnson, the writing is always beautiful.
—Los Angeles Times
David Hellman
There is so much going on in Tree of Smoke, and so many levels of symbolism, that it is hard to do the story justice here�. Johnson brings his talents as a poet to bear, especially when describing the jungles and cities of Asia.
—San Francisco Chronicle
Evan Hughes
With its humane depiction of the most private battles within battles, Tree of Smoke ought to take its place among the great American novels of any war.
—The New York Sun
Andrew Hubner
Johnson is an author who has captured the zeitgeist of American experience as surely as Twain, Hemingway or Ellison.
—The New York Post
Gail Caldwall
Denis Johnson�s apocalyptic, doom-and-grace ridden Vietnam novel has a lot of fire in its belly�if Johnson has a signature theme throughout his work, it's a kind of quasi-mystical redemption on the other side of the abyss; his gorgeous prose and willingness to go deep have led the way through the scarily lightless corridors of his fiction.
—The Boston Globe
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

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Product Details

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
6.30(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.90(d)

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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 them what 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 rifle. 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 just wanted 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 cries that 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 than a 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 head and black eyes from side to side like some-

one 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 monkey and 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 and drew 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 Fili-pinas 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.

Excerpted from Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson. Copyright © 2007 by Denis Johnson. Published in September 2007 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

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