By Weeden Nichols on November 29, 2009
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.