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Tree of Smoke: A Novel Paperback – Sep 2 2008

5 out of 5 stars 3 customer reviews

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 720 pages
  • Publisher: Picador; Reprint edition (Sept. 2 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312427743
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312427740
  • Product Dimensions: 13.8 x 3.3 x 21 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 998 g
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars 3 customer reviews
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #198,689 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Product Description

From Publishers Weekly

Patton is a fine character actor. His performances in A Mighty Heart and Inventing the Abbotts made a notable presence in otherwise unremarkable roles. His reading of Johnson's baroque Vietnam novel, though, will probably not feature highly in future editions of his résumé. Johnson's tale of shadowy soldiers and spooks irrevocably changed by the unending war in Southeast Asia is rendered by Patton in a drill sergeant's muscular whisper, complete with carefully rendered impressions of characters—American, Filipino and Vietnamese—some of which verge on parody. The effort and thought put into his reading is clear, but the results are underwhelming, bordering on unpleasant. Twenty-three hours of so mannered a performance begins to grate on the nerves, distracting from Johnson's otherwise engrossing novel.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Colonel Francis F. X. Sands' wartime exploits made him something of a legend. He flew as a mercenary for the Republic of China Air Force unit known as the Flying Tigers, shooting down Japanese planes. Shot down himself by the Japanese, he suffered sickness, beatings, torture, and starvation before escaping from a prison camp in Burma. He rose to the rank of colonel during World War II and joined the CIA in the 1950s, his background in Southeast Asia an asset as the U.S. replaced France in the Vietnamese war against communism. Enter Skip Sands, the colonel's nephew, a young intelligence officer currently a clerk in charge of cataloging his uncle's three footlockers full of thousands of index cards, "almost none of them comprehensible." The colonel enlists Skip in a secret operation involving a double, an agent ready to betray the Vietcong. Skip, an earnest patriot, nevertheless finds himself deep in the unauthorized world of renegade psychological ops, off the grid and outside the chain of command, an ethical quagmire where almost anything goes, where he encounters conflicts of loyalty between his family, his country, and his religion. Johnson (Jesus' Son, 1992) is a gifted writer with a knack for erudite and colorful dialogue, and his sense of time and place is visceral and evocative. With this worthy addition to Vietnam literature, he confidently joins the ranks of Tim O'Brien, Larry Heinemann, and Michael Herr. Segedin, Ben --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Format: Paperback
There is a very good reason why 'Tree of Smoke' won The National Book Award, one of the most prestigious prizes in Literature; it is, without exaggeration, one of the greatest books ever written. Denis Johnson has given convincing evidence of his utter mastery of prose with 'Jesus Son', his collection of inter-connected stories about a young man drifting across the American landscape, ravaged by various addictions and accumulating tragedies. 'Already Dead', 'Angels', 'Resuscitation of a Hanged Man', 'The Stars At Noon'... Every one of these titles feature writing that is effortlessly poetic, but never slips into pretentious self-indulgence -- the trap that several great writers have been unable to avoid. The earlier novels of Don Delillo, for example, are marred by his swaggering, super-writer confidence; even the greatest writing needs a plot that pulls the reader along, a framework of characters and motivations to build the story up. While Don Delillo remains one of the English languages' foremost stylists, along with Michael Ondaatje, Charles Frazier, Cormac McCarthy and Ron Hansen, Johnson is both a natural stylist and a natural storyteller. He is a rare breed of writer, and only Cormac McCarthy displays the same preternatural gifts. In Tree of Smoke, Johnson has created an epic masterpiece, a brilliant and complex tale of the CIA's involvement in Southeast Asia and Vietnam in the years leading up to the war. It follows Bobby 'Skip' Sands, fresh out of an intensive training regime that taught him the language and cultural understanding he would need on assignment. He finds it difficult to make sense of his work for 'The Colonel', his uncle, a charismatic and gregarious man that Sands has little in common with.Read more ›
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Format: Paperback
This book has a few things in common with 'War and Peace' by Tolstoy. Just like Napoleon in Moscow, American soldiers - tired of the war - had to leave Saigon. Just like Tolstoy who described Russian society, Denis Johnson gives a panoramic view of both South and North Vietnam. 'Tree of Smoke' takes several moments of the vietnam conflict with different characters mostly unrelated to each other (there are exceptions). This technique allows to get an overview and a kaleidoscopic images of Vietnam.

Very few encounters with the Vietcong are described (so don't expect a run-of-the-mill war novel). The characters of this book work behind the scenes. They are Americans, Vietnamese, British, and Chinese. They rank from messenger boys to CIA officials and generals.

There are three characters who are the common thread through this novel. William "Skip" Sands, CIA, engaged in Psychological Operations and the disaster that befalls him. There is also the story of the Houston Brothers, Bill and James, young men who drift out of the Arizona desert and into the war where the line between disinformation and delusion has blurred away. In its vision of human folly, there is a story like nothing in American literature.

This novel is a very rich and powerful portrait of Vietnam and the people who were trying to make the best of their lives.
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Format: Kindle Edition
Definitely one of the best books ever written about the Vietnam war. But it has much less to do with the actual war than it does with human folly and the illusions of ordinary Americans entering the far east arena. The gradual transformation of Skip Sands from a more or less mindlessly devout Catholic and patriot into a self-loathing gun runner is particularly interesting. Likewise, the jingoism and latent racism of the American protagonists is superbly described. The cupidity of big and small characters surrounds the bigger-than-life character of Skip's uncle, the Colonel, who, for me, represents the myth of America's roguish can-do mentality. His glib and shallow interpretations of war-time cause and effect mirrors the conventional wisdom that got America into Vietnam in the first place. (In a great twist, one feels the war-weary Colonel, despite his bluster, knows he's understating the complexity of the vietnam war and is perhaps giving it less than what it deserved). A truly exceptional book and beautifully written.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) HASH(0xa8b42c6c) out of 5 stars 205 reviews
105 of 108 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0xa77b7bf4) out of 5 stars Perplexing reviews at Amazon Aug. 3 2009
By wbjonesjr1 - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Normally the average Amazon customer rating on a book matters to me lots and I am quicker to read the customer reviews than editorial reviews. But the relatively negative reaction to Tree of Smoke has left me perplexed. I've seen far far less powerful less well-written books get far better ratings.

I found Tree of Smoke extraordinary. To me it was a book that included unique, compelling characters; an exciting plot line (albeit certainly far from easy to understand); and outstanding writing used to describe generally terrible circumstances. I agree with reviewers suggesting the book reminds them of Heart of Darkness and Catch 22 - and believe it does so with remarkable originality and beauty

I think perhaps what made this book unappealing to many made it great literature and worthy of National Book award for me. There is no clear "hero" to the story and if there are any heroes (eg the Colonel??; the Houston brothers?? Skip Sands??) they are all really far from being your "prince charming types" (i.e all heavy boozers; all at rim of law etc). There is also no "happy ending". What there is is relentless tension from beginning to end, told from perspective of characters that remind me of what folks that were in Vietnam might actually have been thinking

I urge readers to try Tree of Smoke, but enjoying it requires tackling it with a "i am reading a complex allegory" mindset, not a "great summer read"
66 of 77 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0xa815ff5c) out of 5 stars Wanted to love it Feb. 24 2008
By RedRocker - Published on
Format: Hardcover
I was very disappointed. I'd read Angels years ago and had wanted to get back to Johnson. My qualms are not with the writing--Johnson is a gifted stylist and you must be careful not to gloss over certain passages or paragraphs which are dense philosophical insights wrapped in great prose and at times poetry. Nor with the politics--those dismissing the book for its lack of aviation verisimilitude or because it wasn't as good a Vietnam book as some others, are evaluating an apple as an orange.

My disappointment is with the characters and the plot. This is at heart an intellectual work: it ruminates and dazzles, but the characters remain distant and abstract, and each time I became caught up in a subplot, it would be discarded. It was a novel that made me think--but I also wanted to feel.

Skip Sands is the fulcrum around which the novel moves, but I never was able to fully grasp his character--or care about him. And, while he thinks a lot, he doesn't do very much.

Take my review, however, with a grain of salt. I've seen some reviewers refer to Tolstoy, and I have to admit, I felt the same way about Sands as I did about Pierre in War and Peace.
50 of 59 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0xa78fa72c) out of 5 stars Vietnam, receding in the rear-view mirror Sept. 23 2008
By M. Bromberg - Published on
Format: Paperback
"Tree of Smoke" is big, convoluted, and meant to be consumed whole in a long read, immersing the reader in the reflections of a fun-house mirror, the military's disintegrating role in Vietnam. There's a flood of imagery, an exhausting descriptive style that one appreciates or soon is overwhelmed by. In its 600 pages are characters that, true to the times, seem to be aimless, or at least helpless in the way of unfolding disaster.

Johnson has some heady company in writing about the watershed event of the 1960s, but at this remove from the events of 1963-1970 (the span of time covered in "Tree of Smoke") Vietnam is less a place of combat than a canvas to spread his cast of characters. Reviewers and many readers were dazzled by the novel's hallucinogenic tone ("whacked-out" was another positive accolade) in which plot is secondary to the effect of the author's spiraling prose.

Like many of its characters, the novel loses its way. The intent is to convey the undeniably chaotic forces at work in this unwinnable war; every man must find reasons for his survival, or work toward his redemption. Some find nothing but the heart of darkness. But survival or redemption requires a moral certainty, and here there is none. The characters only become more obscured in their jungle hell, and the Vietnam war oddly recedes from view as the novel progresses. The war remains central to the action, but as a refraction of the country's moral dilemma. For a novel with so much technical detail, which is considerable, Johnson manages to make Vietnam into a Hollywood abstraction.

Much has been written about the book's echoes of Graham Greene in "The Quiet American," his tale of Vietnam during the French colonial period of the 1950s, and the character of Skip Sands does share some of the optimistic idealism of that novel's Alden Pyle. Both men have their dreams turn dark as their idealism fades. But this is just one aspect of "Tree of Smoke," and the two books describe different eras. Greene's story revealed itself in its British reserve; Johnson's novel is overstuffed with meaning, and spins with centrifugal force, filled with characters we have a hard time knowing, or much caring about.

A big topic, a big book: reviewers and readers have given Johnson a large pass for this, but many of them may mistake the book's sheer weight for seriousness. Through the smoke and confusion we learn little about war or the human condition we don't already know, and of Vietnam even less.

For more about "Tree of Smoke," visit BellemeadeBooks at
13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0xa7bb1660) out of 5 stars Dense, slow, but powerfully written. Won't appeal to all readers. Dec 27 2010
By Ryan - Published on
Format: Paperback
This is a powerful, well-written book, and one of the best I've ever read about the Vietnam war, though it's less about the direct experience of war, and more about the madness, surreality, and moral confusion that swirls around war's fire (the "tree of smoke"). Johnson is a writer's writer. His prose is poetic and psychologically rich, full of passages I that I sometimes rewound my audiobook just to hear again. His dialogue and description are often lifelike, surreal, profound, and quotable all at once. The book's central figure, The Colonel, an old school warrior with a blunt-spoken, avuncular manner and a powerful (and renegade) sense of personal mission, is one of the most colorful characters I've come across in a while. Johnson's window into the world of counterintelligence offers a rich perspective on a United States driven by a sense of post-World War Two clarity and purpose that becomes more mythical and mirage-like as his characters find themselves foundering in uncertainty.

Read the sequence about teenage American soldiers newly arrived in Vietnam and perhaps you'll understand what I mean. They act exactly like you'd expect teenagers to, immature, without a clue what's going on, but determined to maintain their teenage bravado, even as the veteran soldiers mess with them. These scenes are effective, darkly funny, and totally believable; after reading them, I wondered how so many other authors managed to get teenage American soldiers so *wrong*.

However, there's no denying that Tree of Smoke will repel some readers. It's a depressing book, and portrays a war seemingly lost in the souls of those conducting it, as their convictions drive them into murky moral paradoxes and places of existential isolation. Few of the characters are very likable or even very knowable, particularly the young infantryman James, who, aside from the rush of sex and combat, dwells in a vacuum of indifference. The novel's also long, meandering, and full of sequences that, like the characters themselves, seem to wander for pages and pages without clear purpose (e.g. Jimmy Storm's bizarre quest into the jungles of Malaysia at the end of the book, long after the war is over). In fact, one could remove entire chapters without significantly altering the overall plot or changing the message Johnson has to impart.

Yet, this is a haunting, searing, mesmerizing work, touching on many significant themes, though they never quite coalesce into an easily digestible whole. Tree of Smoke is a book to read for the vivid, hazy intensity of Johnson's vision. If you appreciate writers like Faulkner or Cormac McCarthy, check this one out; if pulp like Tom Clancy is more your style, then stay, stay, stay away.
32 of 38 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0xa82c4e4c) out of 5 stars Like the Vietnam War, Tree of Smoke Has No Discernible Purpose Sept. 23 2010
By Don Westenhaver - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I was a field radioman with the Marines in Vietnam in 67-68 and have authored two novels about the country myself, so when I read that Tree of Smoke was one of the best novels about Vietnam I bought it immediately. After the first 50 pages I was lost. The characters were poorly drawn and there did not seem to be any plot. I kept plugging away through the novel just as I once hacked through dense jungle, hoping to discover the author's point. It never got better, but I made it all the way through anyway, not wanting to waste the purchase price.

Tree of Smoke is so awful a story that I cannot list everything that is wrong with it, and B.R. Myers of The Atlantic Monthly has already done so. The main objections I have are these: (1) I did not become attached to the characters, so I did not care what happened to them, (2) there was no real plot, and (3) it was even more depressing than actually experiencing the Vietnam War in the jungles and rice paddies. If people and life were as disgusting as Denis Johnson portrays them, there would be no point to living.