Tree of Smoke: A Novel Paperback – Sep 2 2008
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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.
*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.See all Product Description
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Top Customer Reviews
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.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
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"
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.
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.
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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.
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.