We gave it a B
If you took seven years to compose a 614-page opus about the Vietnam War, it would probably be incredibly grating to read reviews employing the word quagmire. All apologies to Denis Johnson, then, because after reading his seventh novel, Tree of Smoke, that’s the first word that comes to mind.
To be clear, Smoke is damn impressive, a layered, rich, sweaty accomplishment of massive proportions, a novel whose first three pages are nothing short of perfect. But Johnson (Jesus’ Son) has always been a meticulous writer, and if anything, the next 611 pages suffer from an overabundance of care. Smoke isn’t just set in the tropics, it exudes them — Saigon, yes, but also Manila, Honolulu, and Damulog, their unfamiliar smells and persistent moisture clinging to the story like a fog. And even as you’re marveling at Johnson’s narrative gifts, you’re staggering under the heft of his ambition. Two decades of story lines tangle into a web of epic relationships, until you no longer bother to flip back four chapters to remember how one character knows another — you just assume a part of your brain has retained the information, and press on.
On the most basic level, this is the story of Skip Sands, a CIA officer straight out of Graham Greene’s arsenal — a fact that has not escaped Skip’s attention. He’s nominally in the employ of his uncle, Francis Xavier Sands, a.k.a. the colonel, a whiskey-swilling survivor focused only on turning the theater of war to his advantage. Countless characters swirl around the colonel: doomed GIs, loyal locals, assassins, and double agents, each carrying his or her own lovingly painted agenda, most of whom fall by the wayside eventually. There are fewer pages of jagged action than there are of philosophy, though the Tet Offensive is recounted with particular vigor. Sands gets a small, tragic love story, which would have been novel enough for Greene. And there’s an obvious point at which the book should end but does not, instead slogging deeper into the jungle (literally) for another 10 years and hundred pages, on a desperate march toward an unclear conclusion.
It’s easy to lose interest in Smoke at this point, but that’s okay; by the time things go all Kurtzish, Johnson’s point has largely been made anyway. Not surprisingly, it’s the same moral offered by everyone from Coppola to Creedence — i.e., war is bad, and Vietnam in particular really sucked. Tree of Smoke is a mammoth portrait of humanity in conflict, less about the message than the journey, which leads inextricably to one of the few uniquely American truths: People seem to get stuck in Vietnam. Only Johnson’s extraordinary literary gifts permit the tentative recommendation to join him there. B