TREE OF SMOKE
By Denis Johnson
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 614 pages, $27
Tree of Smoke will surely be hailed as a great novel of the Vietnam War, which it is—but more than that it’s a caterwauling anthem about American jitters, American doubt and American folly, an oblique and unsettling account of Americans growing Quiet and Ugly in the second half of the 20th century.
For a book that starts with the John F. Kennedy assassination and covers a decade of American psy-ops, night patrols and carpet bombing in Southeast Asia, there’s surprisingly little paranoia or drug-addled haze here. It’s nonetheless a novel that sets you spinning and leaves you reeling. The book’s frequent changes in perspective, shifts in tense, complications of plot and multiplicity of names make it easy to get lost. At times there are so many mirrors and so much smoke that it’s unclear just what’s happening. That may be part of the point. As Claude Monet is claimed to have said in response to viewers critical of his paintings: “Poor, blind idiots! They want to see everything clearly, even through the fog!”
Denis Johnson, though, is a different sort of painter. For all of the book’s flaws (secondary characters that blur together, religious currents that never yield an epiphany, an overextended coda), Tree of Smoke is as forceful and disturbing as a Robert Rauschenberg combine: There’s the same disjunctive composition, stark unfinished texture, hints of bone and earth and broken language, and suggestions of both psychological and physical violence.
Most disconcerting is the structure: Tree of Smoke is made up of two intertwined stories that are described at a different scale and meet only incidentally. Together, though, they create a powerful diptych portrait of American anxiety. “Let your doubt be your calling,” a character is told early in the novel. “Inhabit it like an atmosphere.”
One story follows a young C.I.A. agent, William “Skip” Sands, through Southeast Asia in the years 1963 to 1970 (with a coda set in 1983). His uncle, the Kurtz-like Colonel Sands, is trying to destabilize the North Vietnamese by grooming a Vietnamese double agent and spreading false information. He’s certain that he’s doing right, that anything he and Skip can do to make it “just a little bit harder to be a Commie” is just and useful. Soon after he learns Vietnamese, Sands is charged with the hopeless task of creating an encyclopedia of Vietnamese myths and legends; later he’s responsible for a vast and inscrutable card catalogue of clues and tips about North Vietnamese doings—the project known as “Tree of Smoke”.
But there’s not much point in trying to summarize what happens. Like a corn maze or a Halloween fun house, much of the pleasure and the point of the book lies in not quite knowing where you are. This indeed is Skip’s experience: Gradually the eager young spook who insisted that the pilots who dropped the bomb on Hiroshima never doubted the decision becomes less certain of everything, until he discovers that all is gray. “He’d come to war to see abstractions become realities. Instead he’d seen the reverse. Everything was abstract now.” Sands’ growing doubts and suspicions give the novel the murky feel of the spy fictions of Graham Greene, Eric Ambler and John le Carré.
The other story traces the sorry arc of two brothers from Phoenix, Bill and James Houston, over the same period. In short, discontinuous scenes Mr. Johnson describes the brothers’ lives from military service in Vietnam to days and nights back home spent stealing beer, robbing casinos, sitting around and doing a whole lot of nothing. When we last see them, Bill is feeling “like a man overboard far from any harbor, keeping afloat only for the sake of it, waiting for his strength to give out,” and James is lying broken under a Harley belonging to a friend into whose living room wall he’d smashed the bike. Nobody sings the Ballad of the No-Hope Fuckup as well as Mr. Johnson: This may be the most memorable portrait of feckless, violent American anomie since Martin Sheen shambled through Terrence Malick’s Badlands.
THE TWO TALES ARE AWKWARDLY jammed together, but Tree of Smoke is no experiment in fiction. Despite its affinities of subject matter, at the level of the sentence the novel has little in common with the high metaphysical mysteries of Pynchon or DeLillo. Instead, Mr. Johnson’s terse dialogue whistles past, as lean and wincing as ever, and his descriptions—Bill Houston cradling a dying monkey in his arms; a priest getting a blowgun dart in the throat as he wades into a river—are extraordinarily vivid. The intensity of such scenes is due not to their extremity but to the fevered calm with which Mr. Johnson describes them. He’s a fast writer who has the Conradian gift of giving even fleeting scenes a grandeur that makes them appear to happen in slow motion.
Even language itself, as in Conrad, is unmoored and unreliable here. Tree of Smoke is a book of near constant misunderstanding and miscommunication. The characters speak English, French, German, Tagalog, Vietnamese; no sentence is more common than “You speak English?” Perhaps nothing is as emblematic as the actions of a German assassin, anxious to test his weapon. He buys a large English dictionary and returns to his apartment to prepare for the killing. “He affixed the silencer to the pistol,” Mr. Johnson writes, “placed the dictionary in his bathtub, and fired four shots into it from a distance of one meter.”
Tree of Smoke makes no explicit argument against containment or preemptive war or liberal interventionism. But as a fictional account of how American military involvement abroad saps its people, its institutions, its heart—a work of moral criticism in the form of a novel—it’s more convincing than most arguments, and more urgently needed.
Matt Weiland is the deputy editor of The Paris Review.
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