And Netty also descends from a Tree Of Smoke …

September 12, 2009

There’s two things that stand out about Denis Johnson’s Tree Of Smoke. Firstly, that it’s a book about war – the Vietnam War, to be precise. Secondly, it’s a very big book by fiction standards – 600+ pages. And I’m not sure how many people are willing/able/have time to tackle such literary behemoths. These two factors are both the book’s strength and its weakness.

There is a great deal of very good literature and cinema that deals with 20th century warfare, so to add to the canon some 30-40 years later, well … And without aping that which has gone before and most successfully, well again … Tree Of Smoke is a prizewinning book that attracted a good deal of critical acclaim (although not all – check out B.R. Myers’ scathing review in The Atlantic at http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200712/vietnam) – primarily in the US, from whence it originates. But often during my reading of it, I wondered how much of that originated from it being a very big book and my suspicions that critics look at a very big book in a different light – that sometimes its sheer volume overshadows a critical response.

OK, on to the plot. Tree Of Smoke is primarily the story of CIA agent William “Skip” Sands, who is engaged in covert operations, specifically, and ironically, psychological operations  – involving much uncertainty and a great deal of  second-guessing on his part – throughout south-east Asia during the 1960s-early 1970s at the behest of the US government.

Casting a great shadow over the often-annoying and grating Sands is his uncle, Colonel Francis Sands – a fabulously drawn, larger-than-life, over-the-top character with just the right presence throughout the pages – who drops in and out of the action, often when least expected. The Colonel is undoubtedly and hands-down the highlight for mine – I couldn’t read the pages fast enough whenever he made a cameo.

But Sands and the Colonel alone aren’t enough to fill all those pages. If living in a war zone and never being 100% sure of the motive of his activities isn’t enough, Skip also is kept on his toes by a cast of recurring characters that weave in and out of his life and of whose motives he can never be sure – Eddie Aguinaldo, a shifty Filipino Major with a penchant for musical productions; Sgt Jimmy Storm, the Colonel’s offsider and confidante who ends up encountering his very own “heart of darkness” in the Vietnamese jungle; and last, but certainly not least, Kathy Jones, a dogged nurse and preacher’s widow grappling with the religious tenets of Calvinism, whose impact on Sands – and the book itself – ends up being quite profound.

On the outskirts of Sands’ story is that of a trio of pivotal Vietnamese – Hao, Trung and Minh – three entangled keys to the often-convoluted plot. And coinciding and overlapping are the stories of young Americans James Houston and his brother Bill – who serve in SE Asia at varying times during the 1960s – and the quietly devastating impact their experiences have on their post-war lives. Another highlight (and I wasn’t surprised to find out post-reading that the character of Bill Houston has appeared previously in Johnson’s output – see his 198os novel Angels).

All bar the last 100 pages deals with the timeframe from 1963-1970, then the book fast-forwards to 1983, the war long over, to see what has become of the characters. At this point it is definitely well worth having made it that far, and it then wraps itself up on an unexpectedly moving note.

So is it a good book? Yes (sorry, B.R.) . But is it a great book? Well, maybe if I hadn’t already read Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness (but not Heller’s Catch-22, natch) and seen Coppola’s Apocalyse Now. However …

Postscript: This book actually made it on to Reading Challenge courtesy of a case of mistaken identity by yours truly. It first made its way on to my radar when it came out in 2007 and started winning literary prizes left, right and centre. It wasn’t till I actually picked it up that I realised I’d gotten its author Denis Johnson mixed up with Dennis Cooper – a very different writing proposition indeedy. Perhaps I’ll get it right in another incarnation of Reading Challenge and there’ll be some Cooper on this list …

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