Beyond the Book: Background information when reading Tree of Smoke

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Tree of Smoke

A Novel

by Denis Johnson

Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson X
Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2007, 624 pages
    Paperback:
    Sep 2008, 624 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Lucia Silva

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About this Book

Beyond the Book

Print Review

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, otherness, and the possibility of grace in a world gone bad. But here, the power of his writing is stripped bare, revealing an immediate tenderness that softens the edges of his fiction.

Raymond Carver once said, "Denis Johnson's poems are driven by a ravening desire to make sense out of the life lived. The subject matter is harrowingly convincing, is nothing less than a close examination of the darker side of human conduct. Why do we act this way? Johnson asks. How should we act?"

Our Sadness

There's a sadness about looking back when you get to the end:
a sadness that waits at the end of the street,
a cigarette that glows with the glow of sadness
and a cop in a yellow raincoat who says It's late,
it's late, it's sadness.

And it's a sadness what they've done to the women I loved:
they turned Julie into her own mother, and Ruthe--
and Ruthe I understand has been turned
into a sadness...

And when it comes time
for all of humanity to witness what it's done
and every television is trained on the first people to see God and
they say
Houston,
we have ignition,
they won't have ignition.

They'll have a music of wet streets
and lonely bars where piano notes
follow themselves into a forest of pity and are lost.
They'll have sadness.
They'll have
sadness, sadness, sadness.

- Denis Johnson, from The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly: Poems Collected and New by Denis Johnson

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Article by Lucia Silva

This article was originally published in September 2007, and has been updated for the September 2008 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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