Along with crisp nights and woolly sweaters, nothing heralds the arrival of fall like the big, serious, 600-plus-page novel. As we head into Labor Day weekend, we’ve already found a deeply worthy example, Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke (available September 4), sure to be buzzed about for the rest of the year and for all the right reasons. This may be the definitive Vietnam War story, and it’s unquestionably a great American novel.
The book opens on the day after JFK’s assassination in 1963 and continues mercilessly through 1970 (and beyond). Johnson fills his pages with a huge cast of complicated characters — spies, brothers, CIA operatives, a Canadian nurse — simultaneously experiencing the war and the ’60s. It’s the first novel from Johnson in nearly a decade, and it’s well worth the wait: The story is panoramic and compelling, and his prose is beautiful, haunting, ferocious, and deeply moving.
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