The novel begins with the senseless, needless and heartless shooting of a tiny, wild monkey, "not much bigger than a Chihuahua dog", by eighteen years old Seaman Apprentice William Houston. He was walking in the Grande Island of the Philippines, looking for a wild boar to hunt. He doesn't find a wild boar. He sees a harmless and helpless monkey in a tree, instead, and shoots it with a .22-caliber rifle. When the fatally wounded monkey falls to the ground, he picks it up. Johnson writes, "With fascination, then with revulsion, he realized that the monkey was crying. Its breath came out in sobs, and tears welled out of its eyes when it blinked. It looked here and there, appearing no more interested in him than in anything else it might be seeing." When I read the brief episode, the brutal and senseless killing of a harmless wild animal which was foraging for food and minding its own business - five paragraphs in all - I was quite outraged, at first. But soon it dawned upon me that, after all, this novel was about the Vietnam War; and wasn't the Vietnam War needless, senseless, brutal and outrageous also? I calmed down and continued to read.
The novel is about two brothers named William Houston, a Seaman Apprentice, and James Houston who serve in the military in the Vietnam War, and a CIA agent named Skip Sands, and his uncle Colonel Francis Sands, and another intelligence officer named Storm, a military man from South Vietnam named Hao and a spy from North Vietnam named Trung, and a Canadian aid worker named Kathy Jones, a nurse who goes to Vietnam after her husband, a priest, is killed. Because of the author's digressive, ruminating and reflective style, the story at times is difficult to follow. The length of the novel (614 pages) is a hindrance also. The beauty of the novel lies mainly in Johnson's prose. Gripping, descriptive passages, vigorous and fascinating dialogues, and biting commentaries flow off the pages. His prose is lucid and smooth-flowing and almost poetic; many of the sentences are as bewitching and elegant as these: "From all around came the ten thousand sounds of the jungle, as well as the cries of gulls and the far-off surf, and if he stopped dead and listened a minute, he could hear also the pulse snickering in the heat of his flesh, and the creak of sweat in his ears. If he stayed motionless only another couple of seconds, the bugs found him and whined around his head."
The book reads like a collage of a series of episodes put together. The characters ponder over a bewildering array of philosophical, spiritual, metaphysical and religious questions. Even the title of the novel itself- Tree of Smoke- can be traced to the Bible. But Johnson's keen observations of nature, and his ability to describe the wonders of nature with the magic of his pen, cast a spell on the reader and hold the reader's attention. At the end of the novel I felt as if I had been standing by the Niagara Falls at night, listening to the ear-splitting wails of its dark, swirling, foamy water rushing towards its inevitable doom. And when I shut the book an extraordinary thing happened: I felt as if I was seeing a sliver of the moon emerging from dense, gray clouds in a dark, starless sky, its silvery light beginning to light up the gloomy sky. Denis Johnson is a masterful writer. Reading this book was an awe-inspiring, dizzying, bewildering and at times frightful experience.