Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Book No. 7: Denis Johnson - Tree of Smoke

This is a hard novel to describe. I wasn't hooked until about the halfway point, but then I couldn't wait to see what was going to happen. I didn't much care for the main characters until that point, but I became intoxicated by their struggles to define themselves and their place in the pointless war around them. Now that it's all over, I realize that it was an attempt to recast Vietnam and the horror of all that senseless struggle in semi-mystical terms, as a spiritual wound that cannot heal unless souls die and gods are destroyed. But that's glib and reductive, and Tree Of Smoke is neither. I think.

The cast of characters is large, but after awhile, I wished it were larger. There's Skip Sands, a young and idealistic CIA spook in 1965. There's his uncle The Colonel, a near-mythic Kurtzian figure so known despite being unaffiliated with the military since before WWII. There's his sometimes-love object Kathy, a widowed missionary struggling with lack of faith while bringing medicine to Vietnamese peasants. There's a storyline following Bill and James Houston, who are scarred by military bureaucracy and the horrible violence of war (respectively) and then wind up in Phoenix, AZ with no more ability to deal with real life than Stone Age tribemen. There's the Colonel's muscle, Jimmy Storm, who acts as Skip's evil twin for awhile, then becomes obsessed towards the end with the idea that he's been lied to. There's the Vietnamese characters Hao and Trung Than, who grew up together in an orphanage and wind up on opposite sides of the conflict.

My fundamental problem with the book is that I never really understand these men's motives. No, that's not right: I get their motives, but I don't understand their arcs. I get why they are doing the things they are doing up to a point (everything becomes inexplicable once the story jumps into the 80s). Johnson's aiming for some sort of spiritual transcendence with these storylines, but the meaning is ultimately obscure. By this, I mean that everything seems to go nowhere. The Houston brothers' story comes to nothing I can make out. Both Skip and the colonel betray their own idealism. There's moments of beautiful writing and moments where the prose sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb. There's scenes that will stick with me, especially Storm's final scene, which seems to cap the point of everything without any resolution. Maybe the point is that resolution is impossible without death, but that certainly doesn't seem like a truth where the reveal is worth the ride.

Do I recommend it? Yes. This is the kind of problem book that I would wish on my friends, mainly because I'm curious about their takes on it. A book containing such baffling multitudes invites conversation. I think there's major parts of the book that are worthwhile, ringing with much more truth than the resolution. But maybe I'm a cynic.


My photo
Cary, NC, United States
reachable at firstname lastname (all run together) at gmail dot com

About This Blog

From Here To Obscurity, founded ca. 2003, population 1. The management wishes to emphasize that no promises vis-a-vis your entertainment have been guaranteed and for all intents and purposes, intimations of enlightenment fall under the legal definition of entertainment. No refunds shall be given nor will requests be honored. Although some may ask, we have no intention of beginning again.

  © Blogger templates Brooklyn by 2008

Back to TOP