Book Reviews

Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson

Picador, USA

book cover

Opening in 1963, and taking us year by year through America’s engagement with Southeast Asia until 1970, Tree of Smoke sets out to clarify, if such a thing is possible, the morass of the Vietnam War. The novel succeeds brilliantly, and is a work of devastating, tragic, artistic vision. In Denis Johnson’s Vietnam, the enemy is everywhere and deep within, allegiances are knotted to a stranglehold, and the entire region is a "fallen world" from which no redemption, besides those offered by myth, is possible.

Faced with such a vast novel, what remains is a thread that lies at the heart of some of our most powerful war writings, from Remarque to Wilfred Owen to Bao Ninh, the deadening of the souls of young men, and the cyclical feeding of our sons to the fires of war. Jimmy Storm, one of the last men standing in the novel, puts it this way: "’Look,’ Storm said, his heart breaking. ‘I’ve got to get out of this machine.’"

Fathers and sons, mentors and devotees, they arrive in Vietnam—a fallen world, a cave of darkness—to be reborn as men. "Inside every cycle is another cycle," Jimmy says. Inside is camaraderie and "a family deeper than blood." Eventually, as one GI says, "You don’t care whether these people live or die tomorrow … you kick the children aside, you do the women, you shoot the animals."

And so it comes to pass with 17-year-old James Houston who follows his older brother Bill into service, and says, guilelessly, before enlisting, "I’m going to fuck up a whole lot of people." James’s coming-of-age is one buttress in Johnson’s cathedral-like story, and James’s story, in particular, feeds on the cool precision of Johnson’s prose. His sentences are somehow both distancing and immediate, like interrogation rooms with negligible furniture. Everything waits for collision. In 1966, James is a smart-ass, lustful, altogether typical teenager. "What a whore," he says drunkenly, over and over, to a girl at a party. Four years later, at the far side of his descent into a psychopathic, desperate violence, those words repeat in the now grown-up man, the gut-churning explanation for a nightmarish crime. James is too dangerous to continue serving in Vietnam, so the army grants him an honorable discharge and sends him home. He arrives in Phoenix but "only half of him was plugged in. The rest was dark. He could feel his sensors dying." Most hauntingly is the knowledge that James’s descent is not irrational—it is humanly comprehensible and it comes to us as a step-by-step dismembering of his own soul. At the end of his second tour, James, still capable of weeping, goes AWOL for a brief period but allegiance calls him back. The moment of exit passes.

In the Bible, the Tree of Smoke is a portent, signaling the day when "the sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes." Within its strange, gorgeous and insubstantial meaning, containing both a thing of splendor and a thing of terror, the image of the Tree of Smoke manages to convey the complex branches of philosophical enquiry that the novel takes on.

Literally, Tree of Smoke is the code-name for an archive assembled by Francis Xavier Sands, a World War II hero and a colonel in the CIA’s Psychological Operations Unit. The Colonel’s nephew Skip cross-references the data in the sprawling archive, clipping and gluing the pieces together. We are never completely sure whether the Tree of Smoke is a dangerous psy-ops weapon—information that will lead straight to the jugular of the enemy—or a massive compilation of nothing.

Illusion and reality, theatre and war, the myths that twine all worlds together—Johnson delves relentlessly into these states and all their psychological entanglements. "We’re on the cutting edge of reality itself," the Colonel says. "Right where it runs into dreams." In Vietnam, the war is fought not only with the spent blood and brutality of the battlefield, but in myth and illusion, or as Jimmy says, "in the realm of bullshit." All the gods and all the beliefs—in country, homeland and ideals—are brought to a reckoning, but almost nothing survives the maelstrom.

To penetrate the enemies’ myths, the Colonel believes, is to "penetrate their national soul." Thus he hatches a scheme to recruit a double agent and feed information back to Hanoi, and to do this as a covert, renegade operation, invisible to the CIA itself and to his own government. But the Colonel’s game is a hall of mirrors that quickly becomes contaminated: soon the fictions, the illusion itself, become the nightmare reality. Psy-ops rears its serpentine head back on them, and the devastation becomes one of "folly upon folly" and "veils upon veils." Everybody has a lie to protect. Who is family and who is the enemy? The aswang haunts the novel, a vampire that "can turn into any person, assume any shape." Poison is all around, but they are no longer sure who created it, nor for whom the tragedy is meant.

Tree of Smoke spans not only the unfolding of many lives, but a profound psychological plummet. Over the course of 600 pages, very little goes to waste. Under the "crashing down light of the tropical morning," characters return to pick up their destinies; scenes coalesce, slowly and inevitably, into a menacing labyrinth, one that holds out mirages of exit, escape or most substantially "a secret at the center of things."

Near the end of the novel, Tree of Smoke seems to offer us the possibility of rebirth. Jimmy yearns for "refuge in the cave of the womb that will bear him back into this world." But such salvation will not be satisfying to all.

Perhaps the other hope implied is to live, honestly and truthfully, our moment-to-moment existence because such brevity is all we have.

Reviewed by Madeleine Thien