It’s been pointed out to me that for a literature major who works in a bookstore, I really don’t write about books a whole lot—the implication being that I’m some sort of a damned fraud. There is probably some truth to this. Especially since becoming a Scholar, I haven’t really kept up with the new fiction the way I used to. It’s been frustrating. If you’ve read my little Blogger profile, you’ve seen that I list a whole bunch of impressive highbrow novelists as my supposed favorites—but a significant number of those people have had new books out in the past year or two, and I’ve hardly read any of them. Don Delillo. Robert Stone. Martin Amis. William T. Vollmann. John Banville. Richard Powers. And so on. I did get through Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach a few months back, but that’s because it’s, like, sixty pages long. (It was okay, but forgettable for McEwan.)
But when I saw earlier this year that Denis Johnson had a novel coming out, his first in nearly a decade, I still couldn’t help getting a little bit excited. And when I saw that it was going to be six hundred pages long, I got a lot excited. And when Tree of Smoke was released and garnered extravagant praise, including Johnson’s best-ever reviews and the National Book Award, I couldn’t wait for my damned thesis project to be over so that I could read it.
Well, the thesis project is over with. And perhaps you’ve heard about how that didn’t go so great. But at least I finally got to read Tree of Smoke, and I can tell you that yeah, it really is that good. I finished it last week in a thrilled caffeinated overnight reading binge of the kind I hadn’t had in years, and I felt wrung out and wrecked. I felt like I was living in that novel for the rest of my sleep-deprived day. (Of course, large parts of Johnson’s book are set during the Vietnam War, and when you’re on the retail front lines in December it’s obscurely comforting to imagine that you’re in a combat zone.)
I have to start by saying that Johnson does something pretty remarkable here that only a tiny minority of his newly expanded readership will be able to appreciate. I didn’t appreciate it myself until I was most of the way through the novel—at about four AM, in other words. I got a sudden startled chill down my spine and had to leap up and go over to my bookshelf. What happened was that I suddenly recognized one of the novel’s secondary characters, a drunken and basically worthless enlisted Navy man, who seemed to command his own plot thread, which meandered around alongside the other threads for obscure reasons. In the novel’s last act, this guy returns to America, and takes to wandering the streets drinking, wearing a leather jacket with no shirt on, and he all at once seemed startlingly familiar. Wait a minute, I thought. Bill Houston? Bill Houston! And I went to the shelf and saw that I was right: Bill Houston was the drunken and basically worthless criminal antihero of Johnson’s debut novel, the searingly bleak Angels, which I’d read some seven or eight years ago. So Tree of Smoke exists in the same fallen world as Angels, which says an enormous amount if you’ve read that book, or indeed any of Johnson’s others.
Have you? If anything, you’ve read Jesus’ Son, which was by far his best known and best-loved work until now. I was talking about it with a co-worker, and we realized that we’d both lent our copies of it to other people and never gotten them back. It’s that sort of book. Jesus’ Son is something of a cult classic, a memoir-disguised-as-a-novel-disguised-as-a-story-collection, a heartbreaking and hilarious picture of a an aimless youth of violence and addiction, played out against a flat, sunlit Midwestern landscape that was entirely too familiar to me. (Maybe if anything you’ve seen the movie, with Billy Crudup and Samantha Morton, a perfectly adequate but uninspired attempt to turn a deranged, visionary work into something that people would watch in a movie theater.)
Anyway, after those two indelible books, Johnson had a long and quirky career as a novelist and poet in the eighties and nineties, with modest success and modest acclaim. He wrote an utterly bizarre post-apocalyptic fantasia, Fiskadoro, and a couple of novels, The Stars at Noon and Resuscitation of a Hanged Man that featured helpless and damned protagonists like the characters in Angels, but weren’t as much fun. Then he wrote the enormously fun and enormously underrated Already Dead: A California Gothic which had drugs and hippies and hitmen and cops and witches and demons and wannabe Nietzschean samurai übermenschen—everything you could ask for, basically. This was followed by an unremarkable novella, The Name of the World, which was followed by essentially nothing. I felt a bit cheated, frankly, like I’d discovered the guy just in time for him to decide that he was going to let his reputation dwindle to nothing, to become the guy who wrote that Drug Book that the kids like. But now he’s back, and the Literary Establishment has endorsed him; he’s won big prizes. I don’t think he’s been on Oprah yet, but it may only be a matter of time. If it happens, I forgive him.
So yeah, Tree of Smoke is indeed a Vietnam War epic, but it’s a hell of a lot more than that. Very early in the novel, William “Skip” Sands, naïve young CIA officer, thinks about his mentor and uncle, Colonel Francis X. Sands, whose shadow looms over the novel like a drunk and jovial Mr. Kurtz:
The colonel, his closest trainer, had made sure each of his recruits memorized “The Lee Shore” from Melville’s Moby-Dick:
But as in landlessness resides the highest truth, shoreless, indefinite as God—so, better it is to perish in that howling infinite than be ingloriously dashed upon the lee, even if that were safety! For worm-like, then, oh! who would craven crawl to land!
Like the colonel, Johnson’s other characters live in a Melvillean sort of world, forever on difficult terms with a god who is alternately terrifying and terrifyingly absent. Skip Sands worshipfully follows his uncle first to the Philippines and then to Vietnam, and into an impenetrable moral fog from which he never really emerges. Colonel Sands is a force of nature, a greathearted national hero whose love of freedom is desperately sincere and principled—but he’s also a self-aggrandizing alcoholic, who may in fact be a rogue agent with his own private army. Skip is absorbed into the Colonel’s murky and unexplainable “psychological warfare” campaign against the Vietcong, but also into his death-struggle with the elements of the military and intelligence communities who have come to see him as worse than useless.
Parallel to Skip Sands’ story is the story of Private James Houston—brother of Seaman Bill Houston and also a secondary character in Angels. James is an archetypal Johnson character, innocent but out of control, who ends up an infantryman in Vietnam for lack of anything better to do, and gradually descends into his own heart of darkness. This would all be the stuff of a hundred ‘Nam-movie clichés if Johnson didn’t write the way he does—James’ journey into chaos is first grimly hilarious and then grimly horrifying. The confusion, the prostitutes, the peculiar incompetent officers, the endless boredom. (Thankfully there’s no Jimi Hendrix on the soundtrack. You’re free to imagine it if you like.) Houston of course ends up the recon platoon that has been bound through inexplicable bureaucratic channels into servitude to the mysterious Colonel Sands, and like everyone else is completely unprepared for the Tet Offensive, which is described in some of the most harrowing and terrifyingly funny combat scenes ever written. After Tet, James goes AWOL for a while, and seems to be offered a chance at redemption—in a moving sequence, he tries to keep a maimed soldier in a brothel from killing himself. But then, at a crucial point, Johnson puts him in the path of the Colonel, who clearly recognizes something useful and fatal in him. Colonel Sands helps him patch things up with his superiors and gets him attached to a long-range recon unit—essentially a band of marauders terrorizing the countryside, in the company of whom he descends into a circle of hell only imagined by the numb and wasted characters of Jesus’ Son.
Meanwhile, Skip Sands has a strange and diffident affair with a weird and god-haunted missionary, and spends a lot of time going through the personal effects of the dead French doctor who had lived in the safe house Skip is inhabiting while working for the Colonel. Skip, who has a talent for languages and a lot of time to kill, translates from French the doctor’s musings on Antonin Artaud. (This is why the novel is six hundred pages long. I’m not complaining.)
Eventually, of course, everybody’s position becomes untenable. That’s pretty much how that war ended up in real life, after all. But we’re given a brilliantly written and exciting climactic sequence of intrigue and violence, followed by a number of unexpectedly moving epilogues. The Colonel’s aide, Sergeant Jimmy Storm, who until this point has seemed to be some sort of court jester figure, a combination of the Dude and the surfer guy from Apocalypse Now, is permitted the most extravagantly redemptive gesture in the novel—a peculiar sacrifice on behalf of the Colonel and every other American.
Don’t want to say too much; probably I have already. But it’s just sort of great that Johnson has written a book this huge that fits so well into what he’d been doing all along. At one point, the Colonel’s Vietnamese pilot, Nguyen Minh, thinks about his brother, a Buddhist monk who has burned himself alive in protest:
He imagined his brother burning—he often did—Thu’s body in the flame, dreadful pain outside, going up his nostrils and in. And then as a monkey holds two branches for an instant, lets go of the first and clings to the new one, he was no longer the body, but the fire.
Read that, and remember the haunting final passage of Angels:
But that was just a story, something that people will tell themselves, something to pass the time it takes for the violence inside a man to wear him away, or to be consumed itself, depending on who is the candle and who is the light.