Summary and book reviews of Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson

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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Book Summary

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.

Excerpt
Tree of Smoke

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 them what 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 rifle. There were supposed to be some wild boars roaming this island military resort, ...

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    National Book Awards
    2007

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Reviews

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Does it sound relentless? At moments, this giant novel is exactly that; and certainly, it's supposed to be. But the catch is that Johnson's often unwieldy, rant-filled dialogue and frenetic plotline is checkered with great, poetic moments of clarity as his characters search for simple grace. The chugging train of his story stops every so often at the tug of a heartstring or simply because of the way the light is falling, and a great feeling of relief washes the whole grimy thing clean. Then the whistle blows, and the train gets going, gaining speed, and the reader's struggling to stay on. The thing is, if you do, if you can stay on, the rewards are rich, staggering, and rare.   (Reviewed by Lucia Silva).

Full Review Members Only (829 words).

Media Reviews
The San Francisco Chronicle - David Hellman

It will be interesting to see how readers respond to Johnson's novel. Stylistically, it ranges from Hemingwayesque straightforward simplicity to Proustian narrative complexity and descriptive splendor. Johnson brings his talents as a poet to bear, especially when describing the jungles and cities of Asia. But will readers seeking a "thriller" in this text be put off by its literary demands? It will also be interesting to see how more progressive-minded readers will react to a narrative that displays much sympathy toward characters who adamantly believed in the Vietnam War, even while they recognized the futility of it.

Los Angeles Times - David Ulin

It's beautiful writing: with Johnson, the writing is always beautiful.

The Boston Globe - Gail Caldwell

Everything in Tree of Smoke is there for a reason, even when it feels desultory and too passionately involved with its own meanderings - there are passages and detours on occasion (particularly the Colonel's mad philosophizing) that seem as labyrinthine as those infamous tunnels. But there are also moments of riveting intrigue, particularly a scene involving an exquisitely depicted German assassin. In a novel of this length and span, it's the authorial sensibility that mandates the story, and Johnson's is aptly fitted to the "vampire mausoleum" that was Vietnam.

The New York Times - Jim Lewis

Tree of Smoke is a tremendous book, a strange entertainment, very long but very fast, a great whirly ride that starts out sad and gets sadder and sadder, loops unpredictably out and around, and then lurches down so suddenly at the very end that it will make your stomach flop.

The Seattle Times - Tyrone Beason

he immensely talented Johnson ("Jesus' Son," "Resuscitation of a Dead Man") delivers a beautifully layered, insightful and visceral montage of stories that examines the Vietnam War experience from multiple points of view.

The Washington Post - David Ignatius

To write a fat novel about the Vietnam War nearly 35 years after it ended is an act of literary bravado. To do so as brilliantly as Denis Johnson has in Tree of Smoke is positively a miracle.

The New York Times Book Review - Michiko Kakutani

Bound to become one of the classic works of literature produced by that tragic and uncannily familiar war.

Publishers Weekly

When the book ends...you feel that America's Vietnam experience has been brought to a closure that's as good as we'll ever get.

Reader Reviews
Delilah

Serious editing needed...
Much of the writing in this book is extraordinary, and it really conveys the insanity of war. Nevertheless, I found myself tiring of the the endless drunken, pointless conversations and repetitive scenes of perverse violence and sexuality. The book ...   Read More

Brian Hope
Too much imagination?
First, I thoroughly enjoyed the book and it rests now in the Vietnam section of my library (the insanity of the whole Vietnam thing fascinates me). My comments are that it would have been a much better book had the excesses of imagination had the ...   Read More

JMT

Overblown
First things first, I read the book and it is a good read and it kept me interested. It drifts along with characters entering the story that never interact with the main characters at all (or anyone else really). I kept waiting for there to be a ...   Read More

Katherine Reed

Smoke and fire
I have read quite a bit of Vietnam fiction and non fiction, but I've never read anything that seems to capture the tortured soul of that conflict as sharply — and beautifully — as this book. It is a page-turner but still complex, and the characters ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

Most of Denis Johnson's fans discovered him through his 1992 collection of short fiction, Jesus' Son. His trademark down & dirty style, paired with slim, grim stories of drug-addled 70's drifters drew critical acclaim, a movie deal, and a cult following. But before all that came four novels and at least two collections of poetry, the first published in 1969 while Johnson was studying with Raymond Carver at The University of Iowa. The pervasive themes of Denis Johnson's work are all there in his poems: loneliness, ...

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