Three separate writers use the word
"tremendous" in their reviews of Denis Johnson's
Tree of Smoke, and the word is fitting in all of
its meanings: extraordinarily great, powerful,
immense, and terrifying. Most beloved for his skinny
collection of stories, Jesus' Son, Johnson's
latest tome piles his trademark themes of
desperation, outsiders, grim fates and lazy quests
for redemption into a 614-page monster of a book
about that monster of a war, Vietnam. Forget the
particulars or historical details. This is a book
about what war does to its denizens, and
specifically, what a senseless, glory-less war does
to their souls.
Johnson's prose is powerful, physical and muscular, and draws well lit, sharply defined, and meticulously detailed scenes, making the unbearable environs both cinematic and uncomfortably vivid:
"The travelers had crushed themselves together closely enough to stare at the tiny red flecks of heat damage on the surfaces of one another's eyeballs, to extend their tongues, if they felt like it, and taste the sweat on each other's cheeks… before the thing began moving, budging forward by some supernatural force, drifting hugely out of town, like a greasy, sweaty, iceberg… "
But the oppressive nature of the
surroundings is nothing compared to the
claustrophobic feelings of emptiness, sadness, and
displacement that Johnson's characters face from
within. The writing is hopped-up and manic, and in
streams of drunken dialogue, delusional rants, and
macho patter, the cast of soldiers, marines,
colonels, missionaries, and spies can blur into one
another. But in a sense they're all the same
character, the same lost soul, all of them drifting
in some godforsaken place for all the wrong reasons
-- or worse, for no reason at all. Their lives have
lost meaning, their center has been wrenched from
them and they are left, stranded, with guns, suspect
missions, and dubious assignments.
Intrigue, plot twists, and revelations run through the novel as seemingly disparate story lines twine together. But there are no triumphant a-ha moments like those found in spy novels, because it's altogether too sad, signifying more the pairing of sorrow with sorrow, despair following despair, and the inescapable poetic ironies of the fractured soul.
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.
This review 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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