As long promised, here is my review of Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke, which appeared yesterday in the Honolulu Advertiser. A different review of the same is already out in this month’s issue of Paste Magazine.
Also check out Michiko Kakutani’s somewhat rare praise of the novel in the NY Times (one can’t help but feel it’s reluctant, given her track record), which she calls “a flawed but deeply resonant novel that is bound to become one of the classic works of literature produced by that tragic and uncannily familiar war.”
Reviewed by Christine Thomas
Special to the Advertiser
September 9, 2007
Alighting on the mainland, Philippines, Viet Nam and Hawai`i, Denis Johnson’s first full-length novel in nine years—and what a length at 600-plus pages—spans two decades in the lives of two young enlisted men and two CIA operatives. As the line between spy, friend, criminal and enemy becomes too sheer to discern and war, religion and myth spin into one, readers are transported to the edge of morality and reality.
Though foremost a story about Skip Sands, a likeable third-year CIA operative from Kansas whose father was killed in Pearl Harbor, the novel opens unexpectedly after JFK’s assassination when a young GI, Bill Houston, shoots a monkey in the Philippine jungle.
Powerful alone for its glimpse of humanity in the middle of war, Johnson’s spare but potent description renders it unforgettable and sets the tone for the entire book: “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.”
Bill is just a fraction of the narrative reach, and in time he’s joined by his equally coarse and hardened brother James, who enters the Army at seventeen with a forged birth certificate; Sands, who at the start of the war “considered both the Agency and his country to be glorious,” and keeps panic at bay by focusing on the defeat of Communism; and his uncle, the colonel, a dynamic but protean leader described as “part joke, part sinister mystery,” who is utterly obsessed with myth as the key element of psychological warfare.
Riveting momentum is unwaveringly sustained throughout, but readers must be alert to the trail of who’s who and what’s what in this broad yet contained landscape where society’s rules have been upturned. The story never abandons its first character but darts between them all, even presenting scenes through at first seemingly periphery individuals like mothers, other soldiers and Vietcong.
And though Bill Houston is difficult to connect with, his fate engenders compassion and one can’t help but follow the trail of his life as closely as the others’. His 1966 Honolulu shore leave, where he’s first instructed in island geography and then racial dynamics, will surely resonate with Hawai`i residents: “By 3:00 p.m. the pavement of Honolulu had baked so hot it sucked at his rubber shoe soles as he walked,” to a shady bar, where a disabled veteran informs him: “Around here you got the Mokes and the Howlies. We are the Howlies.”
Beyond parallels in Johnson’s story with today’s “war on terror,” above all his four narrative hubs offer disparate but linked perspectives of war—those on the front lines who feel wonderful only in the midst of violence and pain because it’s the only time they feel alive, and those strategizing on the sideline, for whom, despite moments of doubt, war is their religion. They also illuminate its irony, where soldiers kill farmers but rescue puppies, rape girls but steal medicine for orphans.
Johnson’s impressive prose legerdemain, seen also in brisk, untagged dialogue that lends urgency to communication and relaxation to reflection, allows this ambitious approach to amplify suspense instead of creating confusion. Historical detail is subtly woven throughout, and often stunning description offers oases from the hum of brutality and loneliness, whether an observation of “a parallelogram of shade,” or Skip noting of his lover that “[s]he wasn’t, herself, beautiful. Her moments were beautiful.”
Like Skip during the colonel’s furtive PsyOps maneuver, prepare to be “surrounded, assailed, inhabited by…serpentine imagery” in this haunting, original novel that not only captures an inclusive spectrum of war but dissects every man’s eternal quest to escape while secretly longing to be discovered.