Tree of Smoke
by Denis Johnson

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Reading Denis Johnson is like watching those car chase reality shows
on TV.    The speed and hi-jinks get your adrenalin pumping.  And
though the plot seems simple enough, the
ending is always a surprise.  Cops will tell
you that there  is only one way to pursue a
vehicle, but a thousand ways for the chase to
come to an end – almost none of them very

Johnson’s characters follow a similar destiny.  
Some crash, others burn out, a few simply run
out of gas.  The most daring pull off the road
into the fields, slamming through fences and
barriers, hoping to find some makeshift path
so daunting others won’t dare follow.  But someone always follows.  
When you are hell bent and out of control, you never really escape –
least of all from yourself.  

Until the publication of
Tree of Smoke, Johnson was best known for
a thin book of short stories,
Jesus’ Son, a gripping collection which
evokes the monologues of folks in rehab programs as they tell how
they finally hit bottom.  
Jesus' Son made the New York Times much
debated list of the best fiction of the last quarter century.  But
Johnson's long-awaited 2007  novel
Tree of Smoke -- published a
few months after the
Times list was compiled -- was no let-down.  It
hit the literary world with more buzz than a six-pack of malt liquor,
and took the hard-edged, gut wrenching world of
Jesus’ Son to a new
level.   In a year of prominent books by big name authors (DeLillo,
Chabon, Roth, Ondaatje), this riveting novel walked away with the
National Book Award.  

Some readers may steer clear of
Tree of Smoke because they don’t
have the stomach for another Vietnam story.  After all, how much is
there left to tell after the coals have been raked over by
The Deer
, Apocalypse Now, The Things They Carried, Platoon, The
Quiet American
and so many other lesser efforts?  But don’t let that
stop you.  Johnson’s exceptional novel never falls into the expected
clichés of the stereotypical “war novel.”  In fact, combat scenes
account for very little of
Tree of Smoke, and many of the most
fascinating battles in its pages are merely psychological.  Not that
the author steers clear of bloodshed and violence.  But in a Denis
Johnson novel, no enemy troops are necessary for the “bang, bang,
shoot, shoot” scenes, and sometimes the most piercing wounds are

The novel builds around the figure of Francis Xavier Sands – known
to all as “the Colonel” – a hard drinking, renegade CIA agent, and his
wary if loyal nephew Skip Sands.  Skip is a junior operative in the
espionage ranks and,  like so many others, he is hypnotized by the
Colonel’s charisma and sheer cussedness.  The Colonel played
football under Knute Rockne at Notre Name, flew combat missions
with the Flying Tigers in Burma, survived and escaped as  a Japanese
POW during World War II – and is now mounting a single-handed
effort to disrupt and destroy communism in Southeast Asia.  

But the Colonel distrusts his superiors, resents the bureaucracy of
the Washington establishment, and takes orders only from himself.  
His plans are limited only by his own imagination.  Should he lace the
North Vietnamese tunnels with psychedelic drugs?  Should he plant
a rumor that some dissident group in the military has its own nuclear
weapon and plans to blow it up in Ho Chi Minh’s backyard?  Should
he send his own double agent into North Vietnam?  As the Colonel’s
sidekick, the unhinged Sergeant Jimmy Storm, announces:  “We
want ideas blown up right to where they’re gonna pop.  We’re on the
cutting edge of reality itself.  Right where it turns into a dream.”

Johnson builds several sub-plots around this main axis.  We follow
the exploits of Bill Houston (a major character in Johnson's first
Angels) and his younger brother James, who find that the
same behavior that earns medals in Vietnam leads to prison back in
the States.  We unravel the complex relationship between Nguyen
Hao, an operative for the Americans, and his Viet Cong friend Trung
Than, in which the line between loyalty and betrayal becomes so
blurred that every course of action is compromised.  We trace the
path of a Kathy Jones, who comes to Southeast Asia as wife of a
Christian missionary, but leaves as one more burnt out case, leaving
behind her religious faith and almost everything else.  

Some have suggested that Johnson's dedication of
Tree of Smoke
“Again for H.P. and Those Who” – is his tribute to a “higher power.”  
Certainly his characters invariably end up (if they survive at all) at
the point where the twelve step program should begin.  But the path
to recovery and redemption is always elusive in
Tree of Smoke.  We
find no simple inferno-to-paradise roadmap, as in Dante;  no glib
resolutions, as in so many war stories.  Remember that corny scene
at the end of
The Deer Hunter where everybody sings “God Bless
America”?   Remember when they saved Private Ryan?   
Tree of
is not that kind of story.  But in its harrowing, relentless
unfolding of a national tragedy made all too personal, it ranks among
the finest war novels of our time.
The New Canon focuses on
great works of fiction
published since 1985.  These
books represent the finest
literature of the current era,
and are gaining recognition as
the new classics of our time. In
this installment of
The New
, Ted Gioia reviews
Tree of Smoke
by Denis
The New Canon
The Best in Fiction Since 1985
The New Canon

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