- Hardcover: 624 pages
- Publisher: FSG Adult; First Edition edition (Sept. 3 2007)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0374279128
- ISBN-13: 978-0374279127
- Product Dimensions: 14.7 x 4.7 x 25.2 cm
- Shipping Weight: 930 g
- Average Customer Review: 3 customer reviews
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #395,975 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
Tree Of Smoke Hardcover – Sep 4 2007
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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.
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*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, BenSee all Product description
Top customer reviews
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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
He is a man that likes Proust and LOVES Pynchon (particularly Gravity's Rainbow) and he really enjoyed this book. I mention that because he tends to enjoy really complex, "high brow" literature. Caveat Emptor if you're someone that starts to sweat when they get beyond James Patterson...
His comment on the book was that some people have one story inside them they really yearn to tell and this seems like that sort of book.
Lastly, my dad is a Vietnam Vet, so (presumably) this book gets it right in that regard.
Tree of Smoke struck me more than a few times as an odd Asian doppleganger-counterpart to Roth's American Pastoral - depicting "the War that Deranged the Americans," individually and in their clusters of society, both home and abroad, exposing all their tender nerves and mythologized beliefs. Johnson gives us more than a few Kurtz-like figures, and Conrad resonates throughout the descent of Skip Sands, "Johnny Storm," and others into various forms of call-it-what-you-will. Johnson's Houston brothers vault from SE Asia to invade/descend into Roth's American scene, although two-thirds a continent away from suburban New Jersey. I suppose this kind of thing - call it "madness as a metaphor" for short, but the book is so much more than that - are about as hackneyed in a Vietnam novel as anything else; after all, for many writers, soldiers, and civilians, Vietnam was the psychedelic war, and the psychotic war, and many other related things to many people. But in my reading, Johnson gives this new and plausible depth and dimensions. And he does so, I should add, with a ferocious sense of humor and with descriptive powers that are flat-out supernatural. On page 4, in which he spins out the fate of an unlucky higher jungle primate, we get an early display of Johnson's powers, a hint of his sensibility, and a sense of how this may all play out.
I've docked the book a star for its threadbare "Ah....the nefarious CIA devours its own" theme that so many writers are drawn to. Democracies have a hard time with secret organizations, and democratic peoples spin yarns - delirious imaginings, conspiracies, short stories, novels, editorials, and such - about anything they can't peer into as deeply as they wish; I'm more than a little tired of this, and I apologize for a pet peeve. (If having said as much seems a spoiler, it will be one for only the most obtuse of readers, to include anyone who takes on the book without first having read the dust jacket or the cover of the paperback.)
But in the end, a lot of readers - as we can see from the reviews of those who were less impressed with the book than I was - will wonder about what Johnson has left us with. For so protean a novel, each of us will decide for ourselves. I'd like to ponder it a bit more. It's (obviously) not a book for everyone. It's talky. It takes its own sweet time. It's extremely calculated in its ambiguities. Readers who are not of Johnson's generation, who weren't devouring newspapers in the 1960s and 1970s, or who were never in uniform, may view much of this novel as obscure or pedantic. But Johnson ties things up pretty well by page 614, and Tree of Smoke gripped me, hard. To me, it created a literary world well worth inhabiting, and it made me want to read a great deal more Denis Johnson.