This is my review of Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson.
Reminiscent at times of "The Quiet American", "Catch-22", or "Life and Fate", but hard to pin down, by turns brilliant and flawed, it is easy to understand both how this sprawling and vastly ambitious epic won The National Book Award, and why some critics and general readers have slated it.
"The Colonel knew how to lead but he couldn't follow…. Won over by the power of myth, he became one himself. He stood out grandly ……against the background of his own imaginings." A central figure is Colonel Francis Sands, maverick CIA officer whose panache enables him to get away for years with his unofficial activities, such as the possibly hypothetical exercise in "Psy Ops" (psychological operations), biblically entitled, "The Tree of Smoke". His fatherless nephew "Skip" hero-worships him, accepts without question his uncle's mission to eradicate communism in the Far East, and is desperate to work as a linguist for intelligence operations in 1960s Vietnam. Frustrated by the ludicrous, tedious tasks he has been allocated, shocked into hysterical laughter when faced with a casual atrocity, will Skip eventually grasp the truth about the Colonel and the war and how will he live out the rest of his days?
A parallel thread is provided by the Houston brothers, in particular James, who enlist in the military for excitement or money, and provide the poor white cannon fodder on which the US depends.
Those old enough to remember the Vietnam War, who were stunned by the spate of epic films including "The Deer Hunter", "Apocalypse Now", "Platoon" and "Good Morning Vietnam" may wonder if this rambling novel, not published until 2007, can have anything to add. Many (including me) will find the book hard to follow for Denis Johnson makes no concessions: he expects us to battle with American slang, military acronyms, a grasp of the stages of the war and general knowledge which extends to the history of the search for a yellow fever vaccine in Cuba. The novel is essentially a series of disjointed episodes requiring us to work out what is going on as well as what has happened between the scenes. All this lack of clarity seems to be part of Johnson's intention to convey a sense of the confusion bordering on lunacy that was part of the experience of being plunged into an alien eastern culture corrupted by western influence.
The author's freewheeling approach creates an uneven coverage. For instance, it is made tragically clear what has shaped the Houston brothers but James's descent into traumatised violence in Vietnam is too condensed. The surprising change in Skip Sands' life revealed towards the end is glossed over in comparison to the detailed portrayal of his character and life in much of the novel. Storm's at times surreal trek to find the man he believes to be still alive is described in great detail, but his role as the Colonel's side-kick remains sketchy to the end. Too many passages or dialogues read like notes for a novel, rather than the work itself.
On the other hand, with his capacity for striking, often poetic prose, Johnson is skilful in creating characters when he feels like it, together with a vivid sense of place. The strong play-like dialogues are suffused with the author's quirky humour which also alleviates the book's inevitable bleakness. One is held by a sense of anticipation, for at any moment a mundane scene may be transformed by farce, beauty, a danger averted or an act of brutality, as is the case in war. My main criticisms are that the book never quite delivers what it promises, it seems to lose its way in a disappointing ending, and is too long, by perhaps two hundred pages. Yet, it stays in one's mind and provokes thought and discussion.