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Denis Johnson Killed the Sixties

Tree of Smoke: A Novel by Denis Johnson

Reviewed by Tom Chiarella

When it comes to the past, give it to me distant and pale. Herodotus, for instance. You can't really argue with the guy. City-states, swinging militarily from one end of the Aegean to the other, shapes of cultural movements described dryly and without dense moral hand-wringing. I like that stuff. By contrast, I've had enough of the near past, which I find confining, clouded by layer upon layer of artistic reckoning, and chronically overtold. The significance of recent decades ticks itself down like oily rosary beads on a short chain of self-importance. We get so much of what we can already remember. Still, in times of war, the cultural muscle is to revisit the past. But what the fuck are we looking for there? Morals? Lessons? One last glimpse of the jungle? Decades pass, books amble out of the brush, and we visit again and again with our devils. The question is: When to cease?

I'd say now. Right after we've all finished Tree of Smoke, by Denis Johnson, the last book I will ever read on the '60s. In part, that's because it's 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.

To say that readers have been waiting for a large crossover book like this from Denis Johnson for 20 years now would only echo the beef that some people have with his darkly lyric Jesus' Son or the shattering Angels, his best and first novel -- that Johnson's work is somehow too bleak and narrow for a broader readership. And so Tree of Smoke is being heralded, at long last, as the remedy for just that condition.

The shank of the book follows Skip Sands, an operative in psychological operations against the Viet Cong, a weirdly exterior character who drifts from one mission to the next, haunted by the shadow of his uncle Francis Sands, a CIA legend whom they call simply the Colonel. Moving in and out of the years are two hard-luck brothers, Bill and James Houston, who knock around Pacific postings before drifting homeward, toward the presumably insoluble pull of the vacant and scary desert of Arizona. One pair makes you larger, and one pair makes you small.

You know this sort of book. The requisite multiple characters -- mishmashed across several continents -- living lives that at times feel disconnected while remaining steadfastly knotted in their fates and the misjudgments of their culture. It's a big, chunky shag carpet of a novel, stretching wall-to-wall between 1963 and 1970. There's nothing particularly tricky in the structure, nothing wildly experimental in the tone or language. The sweep is purposefully grand, and Johnson knows how to work a large global stage, bouncing from one subtropical locale to another, without noisome conjuring.

But the truth is, I won't read another book about the '60s because Tree of Smoke is old material, told in a fashion that is weirdly laconic and profoundly gung ho at the same time. Sometimes the dialogue throbs like a Sgt. Rock comic book, and then, pages later, a mere fistfight is described in a slippery, psychedelic light that is Johnson's own. I never know where to grab on, whom to care about. Maybe that's what the decade was like, too. I don't know. So many books. So many movies. I can't tell the difference between what I remember and what I've been told. Worse, I can't care anymore. And Tree of Smoke just doesn't make me.

The trouble is that, critics and publishing execs aside, no one was ever waiting for a knee-buckling crossover from Denis Johnson. He'd already dazzled and made us hurt. Done and done again. He'd already arrived.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Lonesome Dove
    Used Mass Market $3.50
  2. Jesus' Son: Stories
    Used Trade Paper $9.50

4 Responses to "Denis Johnson Killed the Sixties"

    Mike Lisk September 5th, 2007 at 9:48 am

    What was the point of assigning this book to a reviewer who clearly had no interest in reading it? Why waste everyone's time?

    Zen of Writing September 5th, 2007 at 4:40 pm

    Oh Esquire -- they're not allowed to like anything that isn't NEW or at least NEWISH. Other books have been written about the Sixties, and Viet Nam. Imagine. There is only room for one. Okay you major events in civilization. You get

    Maybe when Denis writes a book about the 20-Sixties.

    (Always room for one more.)

    Crawford Leblanque September 5th, 2007 at 7:26 pm

    This review is worthless!

    stephen malekian September 8th, 2007 at 8:37 am

    I enjoyed Denis Johnson's review. And I appreciate anyone taking the otherside of a book that was on the front page of the NYTs Sunday Book Review. For someone of his obvious intelligence and insight is it really necessary for him to say, "but what the fuck are we looking for there?" (That phrase is almost a characature of the era he's describing--too old school). Is that the best he can do to describe an otherwise flawed novel. His reference to Sgt. Rock brought back very vivid memories of my childhood. (My cousin in Fla. used to read that magazine--I too enjoyed it). I totally understand his view of the '60s novel. But I'm probably going to read it because though it may be frustrating to be brought back to that era (I was born in '55) I still don't mind feeling like he felt after having read a novel like that. (Does that make sense?) His review of the book reminds me of Russell Bank's "Continental Drift" which I enjoyed immensely. Richard Russell's "Fall River" also comes to mind...anyway, that's all I have to say.

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