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Tree of Smoke: A Novelby Denis Johnson
2007 National Book Award for Fiction
Ambition doesn't always translate into success, which is why some books that take authors nearly ten years to write become massive paperweights. Then there's Tree of Smoke, Denis Johnson's first novel in nine years and an unconditional masterpiece. This hypnotic modern epic brings the Vietnam War into sharp relief in a story that is equal parts Graham Greene, Robert Stone, and pure Denis Johnson, as only the acclaimed author of Jesus' Son, Fiskadoro, and The Name of the World could deliver. Curl up with this disturbing, compelling, unforgettable novel
"Having read nothing by Denis Johnson except Tree of Smoke, his latest novel, I see no reason to consider him a great or even a good writer....One closes the book only with a renewed sense of the decline of American literary standards. It would be foolish to demand another Tolstoy, but shouldn't we expect someone writing about the Vietnam War to have more sense and eloquence than the politicians who prosecuted it?" B. R. Myers, The Atlantic Monthly (read the entire Atlantic Monthly review)
Synopses & Reviews
Once upon a time there was a war...and a young American who thought of himself as the Quiet American and the Ugly American, and who wished to be neither, who wanted instead to be the Wise American, or the Good American, but who eventually came to witness himself as the Real American and finally as simply the Fucking American. That's me.
This is the story of Skip Sands — spy-in-training, engaged in Psychological Operations against the Vietcong — and the disasters that befall him thanks to his famous uncle, a war hero known in intelligence circles simply as the Colonel. This is also the story of the Houston brothers, Bill and James, young men who drift out of the Arizona desert into a war in which the line between disinformation and delusion has blurred away. In its vision of human folly, and its gritty, sympathetic portraits of men and women desperate for an end to their loneliness, whether in sex or death or by the grace of God, this is a story like nothing in our literature.
Tree of Smoke is Denis Johnson's first full-length novel in nine years, and his most gripping, beautiful, and powerful work to date.
"'Signature Review by Michael Coffey If this novel, Johnson's first in nearly a decade, is — as the promo copy says — about Skip Sands, it's also about his uncle, a legendary CIA operative; Kathy Jones, a widowed, saintly Canadian nurse; Trung, a North Vietnamese spy; and the Houston brothers, Bill and James, misguided GIs who haunt the story's periphery. And it's also about Sgt. Jimmy Storm, whose existence seems to be one long vision quest. As with all of Johnson's work — the stories in Jesus' Son, novels like Resuscitation of a Hanged Man and Fiskadoro — the real point is the possibility of grace in a world of total mystery and inexplicable suffering. In Johnson's honest world, no one story dominates.For all the story lines, the structure couldn't be simpler: each year, from 1963 (the book opens in the Philippines: 'Last night at 3:00 a.m. President Kennedy had been killed') to 1970, gets its own part, followed by a coda set in 1983. Readers familiar with the Vietnam War will recognize its arc — the Tet offensive (65 harrowing pages here); the deaths of Martin Luther King and RFK; the fall of Saigon, swift and seemingly foreordained. Skip is a CIA recruit working under his uncle, Francis X. Sands, known as the Colonel. Skip is mostly in the dark, awaiting direction, living under an alias and falling in love with Kathy while the Colonel deals in double agents, Bushmills whiskey and folk history. He's a soldier-scholar pursuing theories of how to purify an information stream; he bloviates in gusts of sincerity and blasphemy, all of it charming. A large cast of characters, some colorful, some vaguely chalked, surround this triad, and if Tree of Smoke has a flaw, it is that some characters are virtually indistinguishable. Given the covert nature of much of the goings-on, perhaps it is necessary that characters become blurred. 'We're on the cutting edge of reality itself,' says Storm. 'Right where it turns into a dream.'Is this our last Vietnam novel? One has to wonder. What serious writer, after tuning in to Johnson's terrifying, dissonant opera, can return with a fresh ear? The work of many past chroniclers — Graham Greene, Tim O'Brien, the filmmakers Coppola,Cimino and Kubrick, all of whom have contributed to our cultural 'understanding' of the war — is both evoked and consumed in the fiery heat of Johnson's story. In the novel's coda, Storm, a war clich now way gone and deep in the Malaysian jungle near Thailand, attends preparations for a village's sacrificial bonfire (consisting of personal items smashed and axed by their owners) and offers himself as 'compensation, baby.' When the book ends, in a heartbreaking soliloquy from Kathy (fittingly, a Canadian) on the occasion of a war orphan benefit in a Minneapolis Radisson, you feel that America's Vietnam experience has been brought to a closure that's as good as we'll ever get. Michael Coffey is PW's executive managing editor.' Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)"
"What's amazing is that Mr. Johnson somehow manages to take these derivative elements and turn them into something highly original — and potent....[A] flawed but deeply resonant novel that is bound to become one of the classic works of literature produced by that tragic and uncannily familiar war." Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
"Tree of Smoke, Johnson's sixth novel and his first in almost a decade, is his best to date. It's ambitious and perfectly executed, a vivid and continuous dream, and nothing short of a masterpiece." Minneapolis Star Tribune
"[A] tremendous book, a strange entertainment, very long but very fast, a great whirly ride....Tree of Smoke is a massive thing and something like a masterpiece; it's the product of an extraordinary writer in full stride." Jim Lewis, The New York Times Book Review
"Ugly and fascinating, with many shattering scenes, this long work may seem familiar to fans of Apocalypse Now but is nevertheless gripping." Library Journal
"An amazingly talented writer....We can hear Twain in his biting irony, Whitman in his erotic excess, not a little of Dashiell Hammett too in the hard sentences he throws back at his gouged, wounded world." Vince Passaro, Newsday
"The fierce, lucid detachment of Tree of Smoke would make Soren Kierkegaard proud. Johnson, a poet and novelist who lives in northern Idaho, has written the best work of his career, an existential tour de force." Cleveland Plain Dealer
"Long, rich, dazzling, Tree of Smoke should finally establish [Johnson] among the most profound and truly humane American novelists extant....Tree of Smoke is a great read, an amazing achievement." San Diego Union-Tribune
"[T]he writing is always beautiful. Still...mostly what we get here is a sense of being on the outside, which — in Johnson's universe, anyway — has never been enough." The Los Angeles Times
"[A] big book, a story that works in the best ways a big book can — a multipronged tale, told in a straight-ahead chapter-by-chapter chronology, clear and light-bearing as a great tale, something like Lonesome Dove for the Tet Offensive set." Esquire
"[A] complex and hypnotic vision, apocalyptic in its power and in its ability to move the reader." Denver Post
"Dialogue crackles and burns a hole in your soul." Providence Journal
Twenty-five years in the making, a dark, indelible epic of the American empire in decline from the author of Jesus' Son, "one of the best and most compelling novelists in the nation" (Elle).
This book chronicles the story of Skip Sands — spy-in-training, who's engaged in psychological operations against the Vietcong — and the disasters that befall him thanks to his famous uncle, a war hero known in intelligence circles simply as the Colonel.
Twenty-five years in the making, a dark, indelible epic of the American empire in decline from the author of Jesus' Son, "one of the best and most compelling novelists in the nation" (Elle)
Tree of Smoke is the 2007 National Book Award Winner for Fiction.
One of the New York Times 10 Best Books of the Year
Named a Best Book of the Year by Time, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, Amazon.com, Salon, Slate, The National Book Critics Circle, The Christian Science Monitor. . . .
Tree of Smoke is the story of William "Skip" Sands, CIA--engaged in Pschological Operations against the Vietcong--and the disasters that befall him. It is also the story of the Houston brothers, Bill and James, young men who drift out of the Arizona desert and into a war where the line between disinformation and delusion has blurred away. In the words of Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times, Tree of Smoke is "bound to become one of the classic works of literature produced by that tragic and uncannily familiar war."
A novel of soldiers and spies in the Highlands of Vietnam Army cop Erik Rider is enjoying his war until hes sent to disrupt Vietcong opium fields in a remote Highland province. Rider lands in Cheo Reo, home to hard-pressed soldiers, intelligence operatives, and profiteers of all stripes. The tiny U.S. contingent and their unenthusiastic Vietnamese allies are hopelessly outnumbered by infiltrating enemy infantry. And theyre all surrounded by sixty thousand Montagnard tribespeople who want their mountain homeland back. The Vietcong are on to Riders game and have placed a bounty on his head. As he hunts the opium fields, skirmishes with enemy patrols, and defends the undermanned U.S. base, Rider makes a disturbing discovery: someone close to home has a stake in the opium smuggling ringand will kill to protect it. Written by a master, and as authentic asMatterhornorDog Soldiers,Red Flagsis a riveting new addition to espionage fiction.
About the Author
Denis Johnson is the author of five novels, a collection of poetry and one book of reportage. He is the recipient of a Lannan Fellowship and a Whiting Writer's Award, among many other honors for his work. He lives in northern Idaho.
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