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.