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 F*****g 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.
SignatureReviewed by Michael CoffeyIf 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 Man and 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 Smoke has a flaw, it is that some characters are virtually 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 clich 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 is PW's executive managing editor.
Expected much more
The individual threads were compelling but the author had no voice - felt like I was reading a sloppy history of lies told by everyone regarding the period 1950’s-1980’s.
Referring treetops re