Tree of Smoke

Tree of Smoke

by Denis Johnson
3.6 30

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Overview

Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson

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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374708405
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 09/04/2007
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 624
Sales rank: 75,719
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Denis Johnson (1949-2017) 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.