Tree of Smoke is a 2008 National Book Award winner. The reason this novel, or a review of this novel, might be of interest to many readers is that the novel is concerned most centrally with the Vietnam War and, in a broader way, with the Cold War era. Many of you, like me, have been around, since long before the Cold War. Some of you, as I did, participated in the Vietnam War. Many of those who are younger are old enough to remember the Cold War. All of you have watched the entire world affected by policies and decisions driven, or purportedly driven, by our intelligence agencies. I begin with my usual disclaimer – that it is my position that the purpose of a book review is not to disclose the entire plot (which, I admit, would be difficult in the case of this novel). If, based upon my review, other reviews, and/or word-of-mouth, you choose to read the book, then you will know the plot.
There are, in my opinion, relatively few writers who write in a totally detached mode, entirely for money, without an intellectual, philosophical, or emotional connection to the material. The hacks who write the features in the airline magazines one finds in the airplane seat pockets might be among the “relatively few” to whom I refer. Denis Johnson is not. My approach to making sense of either novels or poetry is to seek some understanding of the writer, as well as to pay careful attention to what the writer writes.
The reader first needs to know that Denis Johnson is a poet and playwright, as well as an author of novels. He is a recluse and a recovering alcoholic and drug addict, who lives in Idaho with his third wife. He was born in Munich, West Germany in 1949 and was raised in Tokyo, Manila and Washington. (His father is referred to as “a State Department Employee.”) Purportedly, Denis Johnson first got into drugs in Manila at the age of 14. His first published writing was a collection of poetry, The Man Among The Seals, published in 1969 when he was 20 years old and enrolled at the University of Iowa, where he was mentored by Raymond Carver. (I know Carver well, as a working-class poet and brilliant author of short stories, an angry and lonely figure who eventually took his own life.) At 21, Johnson was admitted to a psychiatric institution for alcohol addiction. This was followed by more years of drug abuse and, purportedly, homelessness. In Phoenix in 1978 Johnson had a “God-experience.” This affects and informs his subsequent writings, other writings more than Tree of Smoke, but the influence of that experience can be discerned in Tree of Smoke. Johnson says, "What I write about is really the dilemma of living in a fallen world, and asking: Why is it like this if there's supposed to be a God?"
Organizationally, the CIA is most central to Tree of Smoke. One might speculate that Johnson’s father might have been one of those CIA covert operatives whose high-level embassy roles might have been covers for his covert roles. One might speculate that the markedly negative treatment of the CIA might be connected to some adversarial relationship with his father. The “loose cannon” old CIA operative, Francis X. Sands, might in some fashion represent Johnson’s father. For most of the novel, one has the impression that “Skip” Sands, nephew of Francis X. Sands and also a CIA operative, is both protagonist and alter-ego for the author himself. It is only toward the end of the novel, long after the fall of Saigon, when Skip Sands has been hanged for gun-running in Malaysia, that the role of protagonist and alter-ego seems to have been partly shifted to Jimmy Storm, the somewhat-mad PsyOps sergeant and disciple of the quite-mad renegade old CIA operative, Francis X. Sands.
Johnson is a fine writer – great on character development, great on dialogue, great on turn of phrase. He is so much a poet that almost every sentence is a joy to read, even when laced with violence and profanity. He has an excellent grounding in official US understandings and policies during the Cold War. He is arrogant, however, in his assumption that “homework” is unnecessary for a novel placed in an actual historical and geographical setting. With his pervasive errors of military detail, he seems to be saying that no one knows or cares about those details about which he neither knows nor cares. He obviously asked someone for some military terms from Vietnam, but then never checked his manuscript with anyone who would be knowledgeable as to whether he used the terms correctly. He apparently had no clue as to how long it would have taken to get from one particular place to another particular place in the Republic of Vietnam during wartime. He obviously made many assumptions and used those assumptions without verification.
Referring to a sergeant’s stripes (insignia of rank) as “hash-marks.”
Referring to a CONEX (military acronym for Container-Express) as a “connex crate” on which someone may sit (when most of us know a CONEX as a room-sized shipping container – used even as a holding cell some places in Vietnam).
Having F-16’s bomb one side of a mountain in Vietnam in 1968 (when they did not enter the US arsenal until 1978).
Referring to the Browning 9mm automatic as a weapon supplied to officers as a sidearm, when, at the time, the weapon was for general officers only.
Having the My Lai massacre known early in 1968, when it did not become public knowledge until 1969.
Describing officers with large, yellow “5th Cav” patches (when the only large, yellow unit patches in the Army are 1st Cavalry).
Describing a cigarette lighter-sized “wire recorder” as existing technology in 1968.
Having an amputee lieutenant “knocking around” loose in Vietnam, instead of having been medically evacuated, as all such cases certainly would have been.
Having US soldiers in Vietnam using expressions and slang of his own devising, instead of the expressions and slang that were really used by the troops (a vocabulary which most of us know to have been colorful and extensive).
In conclusion, the theme of the novel seems to be inevitability and doom. Given the inevitable development of competing power-blocs following WWII, and given the inevitability of the high degree of development of weaponry and other technology, outcomes of power-bloc competition are shown as gloomy in the best cases and disastrous in worst cases. Decision-makers, persons of influence, and other actors on the stage of events are American, Vietnamese, Filipino, Canadian, German, British, and other. They are idealists, ideologues, opportunists, pragmatists, realists, humanists, mercenary assassins, and some who remain puzzles throughout. They are all destroyed or damaged by their participation. The rare individual who survives or fares well in terms of personal outcome does so as a matter of pure chance. Generally, the survivors who possess consciences are so burdened by the great weight on those consciences that survival is without value. Only in the final two sentences of the final page does Kathy, the Canadian non-governmental medical worker and former lover of Skip Sands, express a vague thought of universalist hope.
In spite of the fact that the book is a “downer,” I recommend it because of the quality of the writing and because an alternative view of some moderate degree of plausibility is presented regarding the Cold War and the Vietnam War.