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Tree of Smoke: A Novel

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ISBN13: 9780374279127
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Last night at 3:00 a.m. President Kennedy had been killed. Seaman Houston and the other two recruits slept while the first reports traveled around the world. There was one small nightspot on the island, a dilapidated club with big revolving fans in the ceiling and one bar and one pinball game; the two marines who ran the club had come by to wake them up and tell them what had happened to the President. The two marines sat with the three sailors on the bunks in the Quonset hut for transient enlisted men, watching the air conditioner drip water into a coffee can and drinking beer. The Armed Forces Network from Subic Bay stayed on through the night, broadcasting bulletins about the unfathomable murder.

Now it was late in the morning, and Seaman Apprentice William Houston, Jr., began feeling sober again as he stalked the jungle of Grande Island carrying a borrowed .22-caliber rifle. There were supposed to be some wild boars roaming this island military resort, which was all he had seen so far of the Philippines. He didnt know how he felt about this country. He just wanted to do some hunting in the jungle. There were supposed to be some wild boars around here.

He stepped carefully, thinking about snakes and trying to be quiet because he wanted to hear any boars before they charged him. He was aware that he was terrifically on edge. From all around came the ten thousand sounds of the jungle, as well as the cries of gulls and the far-off surf, and if he stopped dead and listened a minute, he could hear also the pulse snickering in the heat of his flesh, and the creak of sweat in his ears. If he stayed motionless only another couple of seconds, the bugs found him and whined around his head.

He propped the rifle against a stunted banana plant and removed his headband and wrung it out and wiped his face and stood there awhile, waving away the mosquitoes with the cloth and itching his crotch absent-mindedly. Nearby, a seagull seemed to be carrying on an argument with itself, a series of protesting squeaks interrupted by contradictory lower-pitched cries that sounded like, Huh! Huh! Huh! And something moving from one tree to another caught Seaman Houstons eye.

He kept his vision on the spot where hed seen it among the branches of a rubber tree, putting his hand out for the rifle without altering the direction of his gaze. It moved again. Now he saw that it was some sort of monkey, not much bigger than a Chihuahua dog. Not precisely a wild boar, but it presented itself as something to be looked at, clinging by its left hand and both feet to the trees trunk and digging at the thin rind with an air of tiny, exasperated haste. Seaman Houston took the monkeys meager back under the rifles sight. He raised the barrel a few degrees and took the monkeys head into the sight. Without really thinking about anything at all, he squeezed the trigger.

The monkey flattened itself out against the tree, spreading its arms and legs enthusiastically, and then, reaching around with both hands as if trying to scratch its back, it tumbled down to the ground. Seaman Houston was terrified to witness its convulsions there. It hoisted itself, pushing off the ground with one arm, and sat back against the tree trunk with its legs spread out before it, like somebody resting from a difficult job of labor.

Seaman Houston took himself a few steps nearer, and, from the distance of only a few yards, he saw that the monkeys fur was very shiny and held a henna tint in the shadows and a blond tint in the light, as the leaves moved above it. It looked from side to side, its breath coming in great rapid gulps, its belly expanding tremendously with every breath like a balloon. The shot had been low, exiting from the abdomen.

Seaman Houston felt his own stomach tear itself in two. “Jesus Christ!” he shouted at the monkey, as if it might do something about its embarrassing and hateful condition. He thought his head would explode, if the forenoon kept burning into the jungle all around him and the gulls kept screaming and the monkey kept regarding its surroundings carefully, moving its head and black eyes from side to side like some-

one following the progress of some kind of conversation, some kind of debate, some kind of struggle that the jungle—the morning—the

moment—was having with itself. Seaman Houston walked over to the monkey and laid the rifle down beside it and lifted the animal up in his two hands, holding its buttocks in one and cradling its head with the other. With fascination, then with revulsion, he realized that the monkey was crying. Its breath came out in sobs, and tears welled out of its eyes when it blinked. It looked here and there, appearing no more interested in him than in anything else it might be seeing. “Hey,” Houston said, but the monkey didnt seem to hear.

As he held the animal in his hands, its heart stopped beating. He gave it a shake, but he knew it was useless. He felt as if everything was all his fault, and with no one around to know about it, he let himself cry like a child. He was eighteen years old.

When he got back to the club down near the water, Houston saw that a school of violet-tinted jellyfish had washed up on the gray beach, hundreds of them, each about the size of a persons hand, translucent and shriveling under the sun. The islands small harbor lay empty. No boats ever came here other than the ferry from the naval base across Subic Bay.

Only a few yards off, a couple of bamboo cabins fronted the strip of sand beneath palatial trees dribbling small purple blooms onto their roofs. From inside one of the cabins came the cries of a couple making love, a whore, Seaman Houston assumed, and some sailor. Houston squatted in the shade and listened until he heard them giggling no more, breathing no more, and a lizard in the cabins eaves began to call—a brief annunciatory warble and then a series of harsh, staccato chuckles—gek-ko; gek-ko; gek-ko . . .

After a while the man came out, a crew-cut man in his forties with a white towel hitched under his belly and a cigarette clamped between his front teeth, and stood there splayfooted, holding the towel together at his hip with one hand, staring at some close but invisible thing, and swaying. An officer, probably. He took his cigarette between his thumb and finger and drew on it and let out a fog around his face. “Another mission accomplished.”

The neighboring cabins front door opened and a Filipina, naked, hand over her groin, said, “He dont like to do it.”

The officer shouted, “Hey, Lucky.”

A small Asian man came to the door, fully dressed in military fatigues.

“You didnt give her a jolly old time?”

The man said, “It could be bad luck.”

“Karma,” the officer said.

“It could be,” the little fellow said.

To Houston the officer said, “You looking for a beer?”

Houston had meant to be off. Now he realized that hed forgotten to leave and that the man was talking to him. With his free hand the man tossed his smoke and snaked aside the drape of the towel. To Houston he said—as he loosed almost straight downward a stream that foamed on the earth, destroying his cigarette butt—“You see something worth looking at, you let me know.”

Feeling a fool, Houston went into the club. Inside, two young Fili-pinas in bright flowered dresses were playing pinball and talking so fast, while the large fans whirled above them, that Seaman Houston felt his equilibrium give. Sam, one of the marines, stood behind the bar. “Shut up, shut up,” he said. He lifted his hand, in which he happened to be holding a spatula.

“Whatd I say?” Houston asked.

“Excuse.” Sam tilted his head toward the radio, concentrating on its sound like a blind man. “They caught the guy.”

“They said that before breakfast. We knew that.”

“Theres more about him.”

“Okay,” Houston said.

He drank some ice water and listened to the radio, but he suffered such a headache right now he couldnt make out any of the words.

After a while the officer came in wearing a gigantic Hawaiian-print shirt, accompanied by the young Asian.

“Colonel, they caught him,” Sam told the officer. “His name is Oswald.”

The colonel said, “What kind of name is that?”—apparently as outraged by the killers name as by his atrocity.

“Fucking sonofabitch,” Sam said.

“The sonofabitch,” said the colonel. “I hope they shoot his balls off. I hope they shoot him up the ass.” Wiping at his tears without embarrassment he said, “Is Oswald his first name or his last name?”

Houston told himself that first hed seen this officer pissing on the ground, and now he was watching him cry.

To the young Asian, Sam said, “Sir, were hospitable as hell. But generally Philippine military arent served here.”

“Luckys from Vietnam,” the colonel said.

“Vietnam. You lost?”

“No, not lost,” the man said.

“This guy,” the colonel said, “is already a jet pilot. Hes a South Viet Nam Air Force captain.”

Sam asked the young captain, “Well, is it a war over there, or what? War?—budda-budda-budda.” He made his two hands into a submachine gun, jerking them in unison. “Yes? No?”

The captain turned from the American, formed the phrases in his mind, practiced them, turned back, and said, “I dont know its war. A lot people are dead.”

“Thatll do,” the colonel agreed. “That counts.”

“What you doing here?”

“Im here for helicopters training,” the captain said.

“You dont look hardly old enough for a tricycle,” Sam said. “How old are you?”

“Twenty-two years.”

“Im getting this little Slope his beer. You like San Miguel? You mind that I called you a Slope? Its a bad habit.”

“Call him Lucky,” the colonel said. “The mans buying, Lucky. Whats your poison?”

The boy frowned and deliberated inside himself mysteriously and said, “I like Lucky Lager.”

“And what kind of cigarettes you smoke?” the colonel asked.

“I like the Lucky Strike,” he said, and everybody laughed.

Suddenly Sam looked at young Seaman Houston as if just recognizing him and said, “Wheres my rifle?”

For a heartbeat Houston had no idea what he might be talking about. Then he said, “Shit.”

“Where is it?” Sam didnt seem terribly interested—just curious.

“Shit,” Seaman Houston said. “Ill get it.”

He had to go back into the jungle. It was just as hot, and just as damp. All the same animals were making the same noises, and the situation was just as terrible, he was far from the places of his memory, and the navy still had him for two more years, and the President, the President of his country, was still dead—but the monkey was gone. Sams rifle lay in the brush just as hed left it, and the monkey was nowhere. Something had carried it off.

He had expected to be made to see it again; so he was relieved to be walking back to the club without having to look at what hed done. Yet he understood, without much alarm or unease, that he wouldnt be spared this sight forever.

 
 
Excerpted from Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson. Copyright © 2007 by Denis Johnson. Published in September 2007 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.
 

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Clark, June 30, 2008 (view all comments by Clark)
Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson is a masterpiece. This book provides more evidence that Johnson is one of the greatest writers at work today. Tree of Smoke captures the utter devastation of war. No one wins in war, and Denis Johnson has done a good job of portraying that in Tree of Smoke. Don't let the size of this book deter you from reading it, it is a fast read filled with great imagery and detail. Tree of Smoke is a must read for anyone who is interested in the Vietnam War. In all reality it is a must read for anyone who enjoys great books. Tree of Smoke is one of my all time favorite books. Thank you Mr. Johnson for writing a book worth my money and time.
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K Bloom, December 24, 2007 (view all comments by K Bloom)
The 2007 National Book Award winner, Tree of Smoke is an epic of the vietnam war era. It follows the lives of two brothers, an officer and his nephew, and other interesting characters and some of the family they leave behind when they go to war. We meet the vietcong also, and get a glimpse of how this war affected theier familys as our won civil war affected ours. It is a very strong novel which captures that time in our history brilliantly. The title of the novel comes from the code name for a counter-pschycological operation which forms one of the main parts of the book. Never boring, very insightful as the characters in the novel are finely drawn, I think this is easily one of the best novels published this year! I'd also recommend reading Tino Georgiou's bestselling novel--The Fates--if you haven't yet
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(26 of 45 readers found this comment helpful)
Jack Walter, December 4, 2007 (view all comments by Jack Walter)
I am amazed at the critics and readers (a minority, of course) that love to bash this book. Tree of Smoke is absorbing and powerful, with flashes of genius. For those with the patience and imagination to accept what this novel has to offer, reading Johnson's story is an experience never to be forgotten. I'm not surprised at all that this book won the National Book Award. If only more modern writers had this much talent and dared to do something with it.
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Product Details

ISBN:
9780374279127
Subtitle:
A Novel
Author:
Johnson, Denis
Author:
Jurjevics, Juris
Author:
Patton, Will
Author:
Gwyn, Aaron
Publisher:
Macmillan Audio
Subject:
General
Subject:
Vietnam War, 1961-1975
Subject:
General Fiction
Subject:
Espionage/Intrigue
Subject:
Literary
Subject:
War
Subject:
Military
Subject:
War & Military
Copyright:
Edition Number:
1st
Edition Description:
Trade Cloth
Publication Date:
September 4, 2007
Binding:
Electronic book text in proprietary or open standard format
Grade Level:
General/trade
Language:
English
Illustrations:
18 cds, 23 hours
Pages:
256
Dimensions:
9 x 6 in 0.96 lb

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Tree of Smoke: A Novel Used Hardcover
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Product details 256 pages Farrar Straus Giroux - English 9780374279127 Reviews:
"Staff Pick" by ,

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

"Publishers Weekly Review" by , "'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.)"
"Review A Day" by , "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?" (read the entire Atlantic Monthly review)
"Review" by , "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."
"Review" by , "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."
"Review" by , "[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."
"Review" by , "Ugly and fascinating, with many shattering scenes, this long work may seem familiar to fans of Apocalypse Now but is nevertheless gripping."
"Review" by , "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."
"Review" by , "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."
"Review" by , "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."
"Review" by , "[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."
"Review" by , "[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."
"Review" by , "[A] complex and hypnotic vision, apocalyptic in its power and in its ability to move the reader."
"Review" by , "Dialogue crackles and burns a hole in your soul."
"Synopsis" by , 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).
"Synopsis" by , 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.
"Synopsis" by ,
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)
"Synopsis" by , An elite platoon of Special Forces soldiers infiltrates a forbidding Afghan war zone on horseback in search of vast treasure in this lyrical, thrilling blend of military fiction and Western.
"Synopsis" by ,
When Corporal Elijah Russells superb horsemanship is revealed during a firefight in northern Iraq, the young Army Ranger is assigned to an elite Special Forces unit preparing to stage a secret mission in eastern Afghanistan. Elijahs task is to train the Green Berets — fiercely loyal to their enigmatic commander, Captain Wynne — to ride the horses they will use to execute this mission through treacherous mountain terrain. But as the team presses farther into enemy territory, the nature of their operation only becomes more mysterious and Wynnes charismatic power takes on a darker cast. Ultimately, Elijah finds himself forced to make a choice: on one side, his best friend and his most deeply held beliefs; on the other, a commanding officer driven by a messianic zeal for his mission.

Based on the authors extensive interviews with Green Berets, Army Rangers, and other veterans, this taut page-turner brilliantly fuses the war novel and the Western into a compellingly original tale.

"Synopsis" by ,
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."

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