Published by Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux
Review by W. R. Greer
I could tell you that Tree of Smoke is about the War in Vietnam. That wouldn't be completely true. The war and its horrors, pain, and hellish environment sits at the center of Denis Johnson's novel, but it's also just the backdrop for its cast of characters and their descents into their own psychological maelstroms. Tree of Smoke isn't filled with heroic battle scenes or descriptions of battlefield strategy done right or wrong. There's very little active warfare within the novel. At the same time, its portrayal of Vietnam is as gritty and unnerving as any novel you might read.
Tree of Smoke begins in the Philippines in 1963 when President Kennedy is assassinated and follows the lives of its characters for the next seven years from the Philippines to Vietnam, and then jumps forward to 1983 and reveals what had happened to its cast of characters after the war, or at least those who survived the war. The character whose story is at the center of the novel is Skip Sands. In 1963, he's a young man who joined the CIA after college. His father died at Pearl Harbor and Skip is following his father's brother into the CIA. His uncle, known to most people as just the Colonel, carries legendary status with everyone who knows him. He was a member of the Flying Tigers who fought the Japanese before the U.S. entered World War II, he escaped as a Japanese prisoner of war, and his psychological operations work with Edward Lansdale against Huk guerillas in the Philippines laid the foundation for moving the same sort of operation to Vietnam. The Colonel is larger than life and at the center of every conversation and every meeting where he's present. The locals trust him implicitly and feel that he's a man who can deliver on his promises.
Skip, on the other hand, is the antithesis of his uncle. He's naive and a bit detached from everything in his life, but longs to serve with his uncle. Skip thinks of himself as a patriot, a conservative anti-communist, where the world is divided into white and black, right and wrong. He wants nothing more than to be sent to Vietnam and help beat back the Red menace. While in the Philippines, Skip sees a flag flying over an American compound. It stirs feeling of home and the memory of a country he's left behind:
At the sight of the flag he tasted tears in his throat. In the Stars and Stripes all the passions of his life coalesced to produce the ache with which he loved the United States of America—with which he loved the dirty, plain, honest faces of GIs in the photographs of World War Two, with which he loved the sheets of rain rippling across the green playing field toward the end of the school year, with which he cherished the sense-memories of the summer of his childhood, the many Kansas summers, running the bases, falling harmlessly onto the grass, his head beating with heat, the stunned streets of breezeless afternoons, the thick, palpable shade of colossal elms, the muttering of radios beyond the windowsills, the whirring of redwing blackbirds, the sadness of the grown-ups at their incomprehensible pursuits, the voices carrying over the yards in the dusks that fell later and later, the trains moving through town into the sky. His love for his country, his homeland, was a love for the United States of America in the summertime.As much as Skip has loving memories of home, it's not the place he chooses to live. He latches onto his uncle's rising star because he believes his uncle can get him assigned to Vietnam. It's a common theme among many of the characters in Tree of Smoke—they never long for home. They're Cold Warriors and their place in the world is wherever the war, whichever war, leads them. They're unable to live a domestic life. Skip is willing to trust his uncle and do what he says, or perhaps he lacks the backbone to stand up to him, but he becomes just a pawn in the Colonel's machinations. His first assignment for his uncle in The Philippines doesn't go the way Skip expects it to, and it haunts him. If his understanding of the world he's made his life becomes confused then, it increases dramatically once he's posted to Vietnam.
The majority of the novel takes place in Vietnam, either in Saigon or near the personal base the Colonel has established in the countryside. From this base, the Colonel runs psy ops intended to use the Vietnamese superstitions and beliefs against the Viet Cong. In addition to Skip and the Colonel, a variety of characters move through the novel. There are other officers and noncoms involved with the espionage, although whether they're working with the Colonel or against him is never really clear to Skip. Many of the conversations in the novel run for pages with the different characters hinting and feinting at lies or partial truths, bending the dialogue back and forth and obscuring what they know in their attempts to learn what the other may or may not know. Where the truth lies is never really known, and they all learn that the truth is also unimportant. It's only the appearance of truth that matters.
Two brothers, Bill and James Houston, also play roles in the novel. Bill enlists in the Navy, and it's a role for which he's ill-suited. He never sees any action and is often in trouble. Once he leaves the Navy, he's also unsuited for domestic life. James joins the Marines and is assigned to a platoon to guard the Colonel's base. They're far from any action and it's easy duty involving a lot of drinking and whoring until the Tet Offensive brings the war to them.
In addition to the Americans, Denis Johnson also tells the story of the Nguyen family. Nguyen Hao also decides that the Colonel is his vehicle to escape the hell of his homeland. He's unsuccessfully run the family business he's inherited into the ground and he decides that working with the Americans is the right choice for him and his wife. Hao does a lot of driving and running errands for the Colonel. His nephew Minh is a helicopter pilot and becomes a personal pilot for the Colonel. Hao's childhood friend, Trung, left to go to North Vietnam to join the revolution, but he's returned disillusioned with communism and is willing to work with the Colonel as a double agent in an operation called Tree of Smoke.
It's the plan to use Trung as a double agent to spread disinformation into North Vietnam that becomes everyone's undoing. This psychological operation runs amok within the American espionage community. Since the Colonel is running it off the books, it causes the CIA and other agencies to feel the need to bring it to an end since they can't control it. Skip never feels he is part of the war or the operation. Every time he feels like he's given an important role, something goes wrong and he's either shunted aside or threatened in some way.
The one female voice is Kathy Jones. She's a nurse and recent widow who had a short affair with Skip in the Philippines. She gets to Vietnam ahead of Skip and works with the war's orphans. She's sees more of the war and its aftermath than all the other characters. Once a religious woman, she finds she's lost her faith. She writes a letter to Skip telling him that she's full of despair.
I know that this is Hell, right here, planet Earth, and I know that you, me, and all of us were made by God only to be damned.Tree of Smoke is not a plot-driven novel. Its strength resides in its characters who are willing to sacrifice everything for the American way, though they themselves can't find a way to lead a peaceful life within its borders. They're not adrenaline junkies, but they're drawn to wherever the game is being played. It's the feint and dodge and skullduggery in unsettling whoever the enemy might be. The enemy, though, often changes while the game is played. An ally one day could be an enemy the next. In the process of fighting a war they know deep inside they can't win, they lose themselves and everything they once believed in. Denis Johnson slowly peels back the layers of each character, revealing only the core of the man that is left. Each must be undone before they can be remade, and this may be a process repeated more than once. While they've gone to war for their country, ultimately the war becomes a personal battle, a descent into hell where their soul can be claimed. Men like the Colonel are sometimes the Savior and sometimes the Satan.
And then suddenly I scream, "But God wouldn't do that!"
—See? The torment of uncertainty.
Or I guess as a Catholic, you might ask yourself if this is a journey through Purgatory. You'll sure ask yourself that when you come to Vietnam. Five or ten times a day you'll stop and ask yourself, When did I die? And why is God's punishment so cruel?
Reading Tree of Smoke is a descent into their world and Denis Johnson artfully uses his prose to immerse the reader into a Southeast Asian world where beauty is accompanied by agony, where death comes from life, where truth comes from lies, and the individual is consumed by the whole. After more than 600 pages, the reader is left unable to imagine the domestic world, drawn again to that world where the soul was left behind. The tree of smoke reference comes from an apocalyptic reference in the Biblical book of Joel. Like the characters in the novel, once you've seen the end of the world, it's hard to come back home.
Copyright © 2008 reviewsofbooks.com
Tree of Smoke is the winner of the 2007 National Book Award for fiction