Excerpt from Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Tree of Smoke

A Novel

By Denis Johnson

Tree of Smoke
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  • Hardcover: Sep 2007,
    624 pages.
    Paperback: Sep 2008,
    624 pages.

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Book Reviewed by:
Lucia Silva

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Print Excerpt


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.

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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