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Sep202009

2007

Tree of Smoke

By Denis Johnson

Original Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Current Publisher
: Picador (Macmillan)

Matthew Pitt writes:

Why didn’t I believe? Believe Denis Johnson could pull off a sparring, sprawling, 600-page masterwork about the Vietnam War, our 20th-Century National Moral Scar? Perhaps because his earlier masterwork, Jesus’ Son, is so haloed with hallucination. A voice of torque and lyricism Johnson couldn’t possibly sustain through a lengthy novel.

Yes he could. Invoking Dante’s Inferno and Conrad’s Kurtz, the labyrinthine Tree of Smoke is full of hitches, tangents, but it reads exceedingly fast. It suggests a protracted war that moved in an exacting blur. Early on, a green soldier reflects, with both relief and delight, on a firefight he evaded: “He’d never moved so fast or felt so certain of what he was doing. All the bullshit had been burned away.” A page later, this character frames the war’s central, useless drive for quantifiable victory: “He’d fired over three hundred rounds and thrown two grenades and traveled ten kilometers and killed one possible VC.”

Johnson introduces a spectrum of characters favoring the war, or hostile to it. They include an eager CIA operative, men of cloth, and a Seventh-Day Adventist. Johnson takes each view—whether truculent, or tormented—seriously. He tunnels convincingly into perspectives of top brass certain in their righteous mission, declaiming hippie naïveté; as well as pacifists waging their own combat, to steer the nation’s soul back to its better angels. Views viewing one another with equal chagrin: You just don’t get it.

Speaking of opposing views: I tried to let slide without comment B.R. Myers’ dyspeptic, prissy review of Tree of Smoke in The Atlantic. But I must at least defend Myers’ dismissal of the novel’s opening line: “Last night at 3:00 a.m. President Kennedy had been killed.” This sentence is entered as evidence that Johnson’s prose possesses scant “feel for the English language.” But in one quick stroke, that modes line imparts three key pieces of information. It locates readers in a land where Kennedy’s death was reported in the dead of night. The phrase “had been killed,” meanwhile, lays the ground for much of the bureaucrat and military strategists’ cognitive dissonance witnessed later. Finally, it serves as a decent timeline marker for the conflict’s escalation.

Johnson somehow plucks spiritual yearning from the war’s miasma. An enlisted man opines that his mother’s faith is a case of someone “flinging herself at the Bible and its promises like a bug at a window.” Even Biblical “Tree of Smoke” allusions are ambiguous. One, in Song of Solomon, describes the titular tree as bringing forth a sweet perfumed scent. Another in Joel uses it to describe apocalyptic fires.

The book offers no bromides: a nightmare the war may have been, but that didn’t mean we learned lessons from it once we woke. The moral haziness is clearest when Kathy, the Seventh-Day Adventist, wrestles with American servicemen’s conflicted actions: “They threw hand grenades through doorways and blew the arms and legs off ignorant farmers, they rescued puppies from starvation and smuggled them home to Mississippi in their shirts, they burned down whole villages and raped young girls, they stole medicine by the jeepload to save the lives of orphans.”

As for the ending, conveyed by Kathy in a coda: It’s as soaring and searing as the final paragraphs of Middlemarch. I re-read it often, admiring craft and message equally, both of which reach the ragged rafters of spiritual reverence, the hard-earned kind that comes only after some brink is breached.

Recent stories by Matthew Pitt were cited in both the Best American and Pushcart Prize series. Autumn House Press will publish his first collection, Attention Please Now, in spring 2010.

 

ISBN: 9780312427740

Fiction Finalists that Year:

  • Mischa Berlinski for Fieldwork
  • Lydia Davis for Varieties of Disturbance
  • Joshua Ferris for Then We Came to the End
  • Jim Shepard for Like You’d Understand, Anyway

Fiction Judges that Year:

Francine Prose, Andrew Sean Greer, Walter Kirn, David Means, Joy Williams

The Year in Literature:  

  • The Road by Cormac McCarthy won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
  • Doris Lessing won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

More Information:

  • Denis Johnson first came to prominence after the publication of his short story collection, Jesus’ Son (1992), which was adapted into the 1999 film of the same name.
  • Tree of Smoke was Johnson’s first full-length novel in nine years; his previous work was a novella called Train Dreams (2002).
  • In addition to winning the National Book Award, Tree of Smoke was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

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