The heat is the prominent force in Denis Johnson’s 2007 Vietnam epic, Tree of Smoke. Dense and heavy and ever-present, the humid tropical air feels like the real enemy of the piece—a long, drawn-out trial interrupted only by cheap drink and brief flashes of violence. As such, the narrative plays something like a fever dream, a collection of scenes and situations held together by loose logic and an awareness (or dread) that perhaps everything is being engineered just so, controlled by some higher power to elucidate cruel meaning. In this Vietnam, enemies could be friends and friends enemies, double agents double back, and death becomes a common rumour, capable of making legends out of men.
Stretching over 600 pages, the novel includes a semi-mythic colonel, his psy-op serving nephew, Vietnamese double agents, humanitarian nurses, too-young-soliders-turned-crazed-lurps and disgraced navy sailors struggling to readjust to life back in Arizona (the latter being Bill Houston, who will eventually grow/descend into the antihero of Johnson’s debut novel, Angels). By the closing stages, the various narrative strands have twisted and tangled to the degree that confusion arises, the reader in effect joining the characters in the bush and hacking through a literary jungle of their own. How do we piece together these small scraps of experience into something coherent and important? And is it enough to explain and justify the war, or human nature itself?
“It’s got to be about something bigger than dying, or we’d all turn deserter. I think we need to be much more conscious of that.”
Johnson passed away in May, though not before being made aware that he was to receive the Library of Congress’ Prize for American Fiction. Tree of Smoke is out now on Picador and Farrar, Straus and Giroux and is available at all good book shops. Those unfamiliar with his work would be well advised to check out his novels (Angels), novellas (Train Dreams) and short story collections (Jesus’ Son), as well as his essay collection, Seek: Reports from the Edges of America & Beyond.
P.S. If you like strange, sprawling books about Vietnam and conspiracies, then you’ll be into David Means’ Hystopia.