“Tree of Smoke” by Denis Johnson

the war hadn’t been only and exclusively terrible. It had delivered a sense, at first dreadful, eventually intoxicating, that something wild, magical, stunning might come from the next moment, death itself might erupt from the fabric of this very breath, unmasked as a friend

Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke wasn’t high on my to-read list. I’d read mixed reviews and didn’t feel much like a novel about the Vietnam war. Yet when it was selected as one of the favorites at The Morning New Tournament of Books, and a friend lent me her copy, I decided to give it a go. I was surprised when I quickly made it past the 50-page mark, and continued on. Johnson is a strong writer, and he crafts memorable characters, following them over twenty years, from 1963 to 1983.

My experience reading it was probably similar to that of the people Johnson writes about: I’m going to Vietnam; I’m worried this is going to get gruesome; hey it’s going ok; still ok; OH NO SOMEONE JUST GOT HORRIBLY TORTURED; whew it’s over; going ok; going ok; AUGH SOMETHING TERRIBLE HAPPENED TO A WOMAN; going ok; going ok; OH NO ONE OF MY FAVORITE CHARACTERS JUST DIED!

At 600+ pages, it’s a wrist-strainer that shifts between stories of spies, military men, soldiers, Vietnamese, and a missionary. The plot is murky and convoluted, but representing the mood of the times. The book ended about as happily and satisfactorily as the war itself, but the people, and how the war changed them, are what stands out.

While I didn’t love the book, it provoked me to want to read more: Graham Green’s Quiet American, Tim O’Brien’s Things They Carried, Johnson’s Jesus’s Son, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and the Apocalypse Now dvd. Though this is a qualified recommendation of the book, I am interested in how strongly I’ve reacted to it.

3 Responses to ““Tree of Smoke” by Denis Johnson”

  1. Kate Says:

    The Things They Carried is amazing. Disturbing, yes, but simply amazing.

  2. Carrie K. Says:

    I have to echo Kate - The Things They Carried is brilliant. I’ve had Tree of Smoke on my maybe list for a while - I think I’ll give it a try. I’m currently reading A Quiet American. I didn’t like Heart of Darkness, though.

  3. carolyn Says:

    i didn’t outright love ‘tree of smoke’ either…but i did think it was worth reading and very much imprinted on one the “feeling” of that kind of war (or maybe any war). love ‘the things they carried’ but i also loved phil caputo’s “a rumor of war” which I don’t see on your list yet. and in nonfiction accounts i remember really liking “dispatches” by michael herr.