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Tree of Smoke: A Novel Paperback – Sep 2 2008

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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: 544 g
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #212,771 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description

From Publishers Weekly

If this novel, Johnson's first in nearly a decade, is-as the promo copy says-about Skip Sands, it's also about his uncle, a legendary CIA operative; Kathy Jones, a widowed, saintly Canadian nurse; Trung, a North Vietnamese spy; and the Houston brothers, Bill and James, misguided GIs who haunt the story's periphery. And it's also about Sgt. Jimmy Storm, whose existence seems to be one long vision quest. As with all of Johnson's work-the stories in Jesus' Son, novels like Resuscitation of a Hanged Man and Fiskadoro-the real point is the possibility of grace in a world of total mystery and inexplicable suffering. In Johnson's honest world, no one story dominates. For all the story lines, the structure couldn't be simpler: each year, from 1963 (the book opens in the Philippines: "Last night at 3:00 a.m. President Kennedy had been killed") to 1970, gets its own part, followed by a coda set in 1983. Readers familiar with the Vietnam War will recognize its arc-the Tet offensive (65 harrowing pages here); the deaths of Martin Luther King and RFK; the fall of Saigon, swift and seemingly foreordained. Skip is a CIA recruit working under his uncle, Francis X. Sands, known as the Colonel. Skip is mostly in the dark, awaiting direction, living under an alias and falling in love with Kathy while the Colonel deals in double agents, Bushmills whiskey and folk history. He's a soldier-scholar pursuing theories of how to purify an information stream; he bloviates in gusts of sincerity and blasphemy, all of it charming. A large cast of characters, some colorful, some vaguely chalked, surround this triad, and if Tree of Smoke has a flaw, it is that some characters are virtually indistinguishable. Given the covert nature of much of the goings-on, perhaps it is necessary that characters become blurred. "We're on the cutting edge of reality itself," says Storm. "Right where it turns into a dream." Is this our last Vietnam novel? One has to wonder. What serious writer, after tuning in to Johnson's terrifying, dissonant opera, can return with a fresh ear? The work of many past chroniclers- Graham Greene, Tim O'Brien, the filmmakers Coppola, Cimino and Kubrick, all of whom have contributed to our cultural "understanding" of the war-is both evoked and consumed in the fiery heat of Johnson's story. In the novel's coda, Storm, a war cliché now way gone and deep in the Malaysian jungle near Thailand, attends preparations for a village's sacrificial bonfire (consisting of personal items smashed and axed by their owners) and offers himself as "compensation, baby." When the book ends, in a heartbreaking soliloquy from Kathy (fittingly, a Canadian) on the occasion of a war orphan benefit in a Minneapolis Radisson, you feel that America's Vietnam experience has been brought to a closure that's as good as we'll ever get.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By C. K. Lidster TOP 50 REVIEWER on May 17 2014
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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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Jan Dierckx on Dec 5 2009
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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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Robert Alan Davidson on Jan. 17 2014
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) 194 reviews
91 of 93 people found the following review helpful
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"
60 of 70 people found the following review helpful
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.
48 of 56 people found the following review helpful
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
127 of 162 people found the following review helpful
An exquisitely written, long, ponderous, heart-rending and at times frightful novel Sept. 4 2007
By Yesh Prabhu, author of The Beech Tree - Published on
Format: Hardcover
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.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
Vietnam Collage Sept. 30 2008
By Justin Mclaughlin - Published on
Format: Paperback
Tree of Smoke, Johnson's sprawling novel about Vietnam, is structured around the narratives of many characters, which include The Colonel, a hybrid of Colonel Kurtz and Lt. Colonel Bill Kilgore from Apocalypse Now (a dash of Hannibal from the A Team); Skip Sands, the Colonel's nephew and fellow CIA operative; Kathy Jones, a humanitarian worker from Canada; brothers Bill and James Houston; Lt Storm, an insane violent psychedelic dervish who supports The Colonel; and Vietnamese men Trung, a Buddhist Vietcong double agent, and How, a Saigon businessman working with the Americans.

TOS has many great things about it. As those familiar with Johnson's work will attest, the prose is electric - engaging, energetic, fresh. The characters of the Houston brothers and Skip Sands stand out as especially strong, distinct, and moving. Brothers James and Bill are the typical down and out, edge of respectable society guys that Johnson is so good at bringing to life. Skip Sands also comes across well. He is an introspective man, educated, morally conscious. His struggle is the struggle of the nation, full of good intentions and patriotism, faith in God, etc, which all come under fire when confronted with ludicrous nature of the war.

TOS's main weakness is it tries to accomplish too much with too many different points of view. The result is too much expository writing, too much generalization. Overall Johnson grapples with many themes - religion, patriotism, horror, innocence, death. These are big issues, better dealt with obliquely, through the specificity of characters and their situations. As a result of generalization, many of the characters feel flat. Colonel Sands is a complete stock character taken right out of a mediocre movie. Lt Storm speaks like a bad television movie - "this is getting psychedelic, man!" The Vietnamese characters are never fully penetrated, and feel as though they are placed in the novel to provide some sort of balance to the American perspective. Kathy Jones only comes alive at the very end of the novel.

I found the book worth reading all the way through. The total perspective on the Vietnam War is nothing new, and in no way compares to classics like Herr's "Dispatches" or most of Tim O'Brien's oeuvre. There is a directionless to the book that I found frustrating, but flashes of greatness as well.

One word of note, the plot definitely picks up at the end, and I found the last third by far the best - so keep reading.