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 Psychological 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."
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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 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?”
“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.”
“Fucked- up, shitty, I know. Because we’re family.”
“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.”
“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.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
I can see why [book: Tree of Smoke] won the National Book Award: it has fabricated intelligence reports to appeal to the left wing, a Just War to appeal to the right wing, and God to appeal to every righteous American. Certainly, Vietnam war buffs and/or veterans will probably enjoy it: Johnson pays excellent attention to climate and geography. But while they don't have the same voice, all Johnson's characters sound like variations on a theme; everyone speaks with intellectual detachment and uncommon wisdom. And, really, I think the notions that war is hell, that war makes unlikely heroes, that war is a fog, or a fantasy, or a nightmare, that truth is relative, that trust is precarious, etc., etc., etc., have been done to death by now. If you've watched Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket, read [book:The Things They Carried], and seen a world news broadcast lately, you've pretty much gotten the point already. There may be something new to say about the Vietnam war, especially considering the U.S.'s current involvement in foreign conflicts, and it may even appear somewhere in these 614 pages--but finding it involves a daunting excavation.
This is a novel set during the Vietnam War and focuses on the operations of the CIA in that theater. Main characters are Colonel Francis Sands and his nephew Skip and the Houston brothers, Bill Jr. and James. The Sands work for the CIA and are attempting to find a Viet Cong double agent. The Houston brothers join up with the military because there aren't any better options for them and both are profoundly affected by their military service. I would have to preferred to hear more about the Houstons and less about the Sands. This book would have been 20 pages shorter if the "f" word was omitted. Another in a long string of books that I didn't love. It was well outside my usual taste.
I admit I was biased toward this novel even before I opened it, due partly to prior admiration toward Denis Johnson and partly to the fact that this is the most beautifully designed book I own. I just want to hold it and look at it and rub it against my face.That said.Everything is accomplished in this book. The Vietnam War is approached from a variety of angles--infantry, tunnel rat, South Vietnamese fighter pilot, North Vietnamese agent, CIA operative, outsourced assassin--to attempt to give a complete picture of a convoluted epoch in world history. Going further, Johnson successfully ties these threads into a highly arresting narrative. And even further, the narrative is bursting with philosophy about what the War meant. The phrase "Tree of Smoke" is more than just a catchy title, etc.'Tree of Smoke' contains a jarringly realistic vision of what it means when the front line catches up to you.The prose is lean but potent. I didn't find the plot to be lacking a motor, in fact I read this book quite quickly. Denis Johnson's prior longish novel, 'Already Dead,' sort of descended into a quagmire toward the end. Not so with 'Tree of Smoke.' It's obvious that this subject meant a lot to him, and leads one to suspect he had long wanted to write about the Vietnam War.I can only assume that as years pass this novel will be looked back upon as the quintessential novel of the Vietnam War. You should read it.
The language is just wild, and the story is gripping.
The inside of the jacket: This is the story of William "Skip" Sand, CIA - engaged in Psychological Operations against the Vietcong - and the disasters that befall him. This 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 its vision of human folly, this is a story like nothing in our literature. First of all, I read this book, sort of the same way I watch The Unit on television. When I watch The Unit, I am usually sitting on the couch, paging through a magazine. When a scene comes on with the wives, I put down my magazine and watch, when the war story comes back on, I pick back up my magazine. Why do I even watch The Unit?? Because I control about 99% of our Tivo watching, my husband's 1% is The Unit and a couple of shows from Spike TV. If he can watch Project Runway, Criminal Minds, Top Chef, Real Housewives of Orange County, and all the other shows that I make him watch, then I can watch The Unit.So, anyway. I did read this book, all 614 pages of it. I could tell that it was a good book and an interesting book if you like war stories, and covert operations, and things like that. I just kind of paid more attention to the characters and their personalities and less on the covert operations part, and even then it held my interest. So, if you like war based stories, then you would probably really like this!
I love Denis Johnson. I think he is an amazing, mind-blowing author who assembles the most amazing sentences. He has a way of depicting lost souls, whose hells are mostly self-created, and seducing the reader into entering those hells by way of empathy and love. My difficulty in engaging myself with this novel is that I didn¿t love the characters in Tree of Smoke. Most of the time, I found them despicable, and at the very least, sad. I think this may be part of the book¿s genius. I have no direct experience of Vietnam but what I gather from movies, history books, and documentaries is that this same sinister antipathy pervaded. I don¿t really know. War is not my thing. Tree of Smoke spans the years 1963 through 1970, and juxtaposes the stories of William ¿Skip¿ Sands, CIA, working for Psychological Operations against the Vietcong, and brothers, Bill and James Houston, who both enlist in the Army. This 614 page novel is generally about Vietnam, and CIA and military strategies, following not only the American point of view but also entering the lives of various Vietnamese with different backgrounds and involvement in the war. We see amorality on both sides, atrocities against man and animal alike. For me, personally, Johnson¿s genius is cemented in his depiction of the Philippines. He captures atmospheres, characteristics of the terrain, and esoteric cultural aspects with masterful authenticity. It¿s not some fantasized, touristic picture, but ireality: over-worked caribou, monkey meat, pig¿s blood, Tag-lish and children mistaking white men for priests.
Over the past two years I've read most of Denis Johnson's published prose. DJ has unique voice - his language is poetic without getting too abstract. He scratches me right where I itch. Like several of his other novels, Tree of Smoke could be classified as a thriller. The story of CIA man Skip Sands, his uncle the Colonel, and a large cast of supporting characters is an exciting romp through Southeast Asia before, during and after the U.S.'s military involvement in Vietman. (Don't be intimated by the length - if you're interested in the subject matter you'll probably find Tree of Smoke to be a page turner rather than a slog.) Even beyond DJ's use of language, plot and characterization, Tree of Smoke is special due to DJ's ability to invoke man's craving for the sublime, the transcendent. I don't know how the component parts create this effect, but they do. Part of it may be that DJ is the rare modern author that takes religious experience seriously.
Hmmm...There are some books where I wonder if I'm just too dumb to understand it or if it really is non-sensical. This is one of those books. I went away thinking I missed something.
Compelling. I had to read it to the end, though I¿m not sure I actually made sense of it. The main character is Skip Sands, a good American boy who follows his dead father¿s brother (¿the Colonel, Francis Xavier Sands) into the CIA and into PsyOps. After getting his feet wet in southeast Asia with the Colonel¿s operations in the Philippines, Skip, something of a linguist, goes to Monterrey to learn Vietnamese in preparation for going to Vietnam. But he¿s not the CIA type. He¿s more of a scholar who tackles new languages with gusto and, stationed in the home of a dead French eye doctor, spends his time reading and studying in his library. Neither action nor deception come naturally to him. He¿s, moreover, idealistic, hooked on the idea of ¿serving his country¿ as did his father who died at Pearl Harbor and his uncle. He always wants to ¿know the truth¿ and doesn¿t take naturally to the Colonel¿s sense that loyalty (to one¿s buddies, one¿s unit, one¿s leader) is the primary virtue.The Colonel is a CIA operative turned rogue. His plan (named ¿tree of smoke¿ from several Old Testament passages) is to run a double agent back into North Vietnam, convincing the leadership that the US plans a nuclear attack. One review was entitled ¿Bright Shining Lie¿ and while it didn¿t reference Neil Sheehan¿s famous book, my first thought when I met ¿the Colonel¿ of Johnson¿s novel was Sheehan¿s version of Lieutenant Colonel John Paul Van, an outspoken army field adviser who criticized the way the war was being waged, ignored his superiors and leaked his pessimistic assessments to the U.S. press corps in Saigon. In Viet Nam, Johnson¿s Colonel Sands dies before his plan becomes operational, dies but no one ever knows definitively how or why. Many assume he¿s still alive in hiding somewhere; others assume the CIA killed him off. From the first when a priest is assassinated in the Philippines, it¿s clear that Skip is not the man to deal with the Colonel¿s PsyOps programs. The Colonel has supposedly chosen him because he¿s family and will be loyal. He doesn¿t understand Skip any more than Skip understands the Colonel. There¿s a girl too. Kathy Jones. A Canadian who comes to southeast Asia with her Seventh Day Adventist husband who dies in the Philippines, she stays on as a nurse and then in programs to adopt children out of the area. Overworked with practically no support she¿s alternatively ultra religious and ultra skeptical. She and Skip have a brief affair. She writes to him at the language school and he ignores her letters; in the end he writes to her and says he loved her and missed his chance.Two other Americans are the Houston brothers, Bill and James, a sailor and a soldier who seem to represent the kind of recruits who didn¿t die in southeast Asia, but who learned how to become savage. There seems no redemption for them; they return home to end up rootless, in and out of jail. Kathy barely survives a plane crash (with a load of orphans) and ends up crippled in mind and body. Skip's fate is the worst.The plot of this novel is elliptical and tortured. Critics see an analogy between it and the labyrinthine Viet Cong tunnels that figured prominently in that war. The writing is occasionally brilliant and moving, but mostly not.
Audiobook............This is the second time I have tried this award winning novel. I just cannot continue slogging through it. Frankly, it is boring, and without any particular literary features to redeem the boredom.
This novel is part of my ongoing effort to upgrade my reading list, having won a National Book Award in 2007. I found it to be generally very well written and captivating, but suffering from periods of dense prose and underediting. I must say that the Amazon review profile is one of the most unusual I've ever seen, an almost reverse bell curve. Readers either love it or hate it, which is somewhat surprising, because I really found it relatively easy to read and can't imagine what would impel anyone to give it a one or two star rating. In any event, the novel centers on the Vietnam War, however very little actual fighting is mentioned. Instead, intrigue by the CIA and various other intelligence agencies provide the basis for the story, which follows several disparate plot lines, some of which never seem to intersect. I've seen references to Apocolypse Now and the novel is deeply influenced by the character of Colonel Francis X. Sands, an old line CIA operative who has gone renegade and surrounded himself with accolytes to do his bidding. To these accolytes, Sands is a demi-god, much in the mold of Colonel Kurtz. Sands's nephew, Skip, is the primary character in the story. His interaction with the various other characters and the establishment's efforts to reign in "the Colonel" are what tie the novel together. At 614 pages of small typed, full pages, this is a relatively long book, at times in need of editing, in my opinion. There are a couple of story lines that don't seem to go anywhere, primarily those of Kathy Jones (I guess every book needs a love interest) and the brothers from Arizona, that while very entertaining don't seem to have any relevance to the story other than to interject the ugly, seedy world of the front line grunt. I've got to think that there is an outstanding 500 page novel somewhere in this book, but the periods of pretentious, dense prose (thankfully few and far between) and the filler material drags it down below the highest standard. A very worthwhile read nonetheless.
"Tree of Smoke" has left me with one of those Mr. Jones feelings--something's happening here and I wish I knew what it was. The novel is replete with deceptions--against loved ones, their colleagues, the country the serve, themselves, and the reader. It's the stuff that spooks are made of, the food that mind and body are made of after a lifetime of subsisting on it. While I'm tempted to describe the plot as Apocalypse Now wedded with spy novels, it wouldn't be doing the plot justice. Wishing I had read "The Quite American" and "The Ugly American" prior to this (two books repeatedly referenced in the work), I feel like I've missed something in ignoring its literary genealogy. Regrets aside, Johnson's work was impressive in its scope of following the work of Skip Sands, the untested and seemingly naive CIA operative, the colonel, Skip's uncle and legend of the agency, and the two Houston brothers who were wrapped up in the Vietnam war--one of whom was involved in the psy-ops independently directed by the colonel and irrevocably shattered by his actions. It's a book I'll be thinking of for some time, if only to scratch my head until the "ah-ha!" moment attends.
In addition to the prestige of winning the National Book Award & being selected as one of the 5 Best Books of 2007 by the New York Times, Johnson¿s magnificent saga of the Vietnam War is also one of those books that this Humble Bookseller thinks will stand up as an important, politically poignant piece of fiction ¿ possibly remembered as the quintessential novel of Vietnam (with apologies to Tim O¿Brien.) And it¿s more than just a Vietnam novel ¿ it is more so about who we became as a people in its aftermath, with an abundance of parallels to our current foreign predicament(s). Funny, sad, serious, critical, cynical, all the time, on every page - a brilliant book.
This is, in the simplest terms, the best book I have read, fiction or otherwise, about Vietnam.
After the ecstasies of "Jesus' Son," I was ready to plunge into this and revel in every sentence, every chapter, and see how Johnson works his magic in long form fiction with subject matter ripe for the style that makes his stories so enthralling. Instead, I may actually sell this book. And I *never* sell my books! I have to hope that DJ is just trying to write a "best seller" and make some money by dumbing it down the way a presidential candidate raised on Bombay martinis and single malt scotch will descend to drinking Rolling Rocks in dirty "people's" bars just to capture the Pennsylania folk vote. With the difference that I actually like Rolling Rock and dirty bars. A huge disappointment for someone looking for craft. Read B.R. Meyers' review in the Atlantic to see if you can stomach this. Stieg Larsson fans may like it though. Full disclosure: I am quitting at page 100.
"Tree of Smoke" chronicles the damage that the Vietnam war--and war generally--inflicts upon warriors, spies, double agents, relief workers, and others. (Others in this case includes hookers, orphans, and relatives.) Across 700 pages Johnson weaves near-psychedelic exposition chronicling the downfall of Skip Sands, who runs psychological operations for the CIA, his mentor Francis X. Sands, a legendary and enigmatic Cold Warrior, Jimmy Storm, a soldier who is ruthless as he is loyal, and Cathy, a missionary who has fallen from her faith.It is a deeply sad, violent, and engaging tale of a terrible war and it surprises at every turn, and the reader is never sure how things will resolve or end.
It took me FOREVER to read this book, but only because of endless interruptions to my novel reading times. I bought this book one day when I rushed into my favourite bookstore hours before a flight to Manila, asking the wise man behind the counter for a recommendation. I had been thinking literary travel. He got a peculiar faraway look in his eye and tossed Tree of Smoke at me. I blanched a bit at the prospect of lugging a 624 page book across hemispheres and trying to read it in a coach class seat without injuring myself or another passenger, but I couldn't possibly say no to this fellow.I liked the book. It's very Graham Greene, but also in the same genre as other realistic accounts of the madness of the VietNam war (like Dispatches, for instance). The main characters were well drawn and complex (a good dose of Mistah Kurtz in the Colonel, one of the main and most inscrutable characters). The interlocking stories worked well. One thing: what's with the continual references to bread? It was often either being craved or being consumed or being generally unavailable. I wondered if there was some kind of allusion, a bit beyond my addled brain, other than the conventional kinds of religious (staff of life, bread as body, etc. etc.) things.
Denis Johnson has created a Faulknerian epic of the Vietnam war, with hired assassins, combat-loving soldiers, and a mysterious colonel who orchestrates behind-the-scenes plots to wage a private conflict. The characters are well drawn and believable, and the plotting complex. If the ending is less than satisfying, it does not detract from the pleasure of getting to it.
This is a beautifully written, and sometimes heartbreaking book. The loneliness and inner turmoil of men and women involved in war permeates the story without dragging it down. Detail and emotion carry the story so well that although this is a long book at over 600 pages, it doesn't feel that way.
"Tree of Smoke," "Fog of War," "Heart of Darkness" -- apparently, clarity of vision is one of the inevitable casualties of any protracted conflict. Original objectives, rules of engagement, perceptions of right and wrong, the true nature of the enemy -- these concepts eventually begin to shift and tumble like the colored shards in a kaleidoscope.I've always preferred viewing movies about the Viet Nam War over reading books about the same. Stone, Kubrick, and Coppola have all captured the tragedy, heroism, and absurdity of Viet Nam with a sensory immediacy that leaves the viewer exhausted but edified -- the 2-3 hour cinematic journey is painful, but the viewer emerges from the experience as a better person. When Denis Johnson's "Tree of Smoke" won the National Book Award for fiction, I decided I would overcome my hesitancy about Viet Nam novels and actually read the book.Three weeks and 600 pages later, I've reached two conclusions: 1) Reading about a brutal, senseless war for days on end is considerably more draining than viewing 2 hours of "Full Metal Jacket." I read a good portion of the book while vacationing in Cabo San Lucas, and it colored my experience of the entire trip. 2) That being said, I am glad I read Johnson's prizewinner. The book's title, "Tree of Smoke," aptly reflects a theme that is explored throughout the novel: the ambiguity and duality of human nature, and our innate drive to seek absolutes in a gray world that rebuffs our attempts to answer life's deepest questions.The book's primary story is that of Skip Sands, a CIA Special Ops agent, as he experiences the war and its aftermath from 1964-1984. The reader is also drawn into the tale of Skip's legendary uncle, the Colonel; Skip's wartime lover, a Christian relief worker named Kathy; an unforgettable Viet Cong agent named Trung who "turns" for the US; and two hapless brothers from Arizona who lack all sense of personal direction. Nothing is clear here. Is Skip ultimately a true believer who is betrayed by his country, or a gun-running criminal who has lost his moral compass? Is "The Colonel" a heroic leader worthy of mythic deification, or an alcoholic who has crossed the line from eccentricity to madness? Is Trung a man of conscience who switches his allegiance based upon principle, or an opportunist who cooperates with the highest bidder? Does Kathy believe her missionary message, or is she just going through the motions out of habit? Does the war ruin Bill and James, or are they losers who were destined to meet a bad end under any circumstances? Even the underlying symbolism of the "Tree of Smoke" changes; it is depicted variously as the unwavering pillar of fire that led the Children of Israel out of Egypt, the smoky cloud of an atomic bomb, the murky branches of a CIA organization whose objectives are unclear, and the profound chaos and confusion of combat itself.I highly recommend this book.