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Tree of Smoke
By Denis Johnson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux / ISBN: 978-0-374-27912-7
So before anything else, a little history lesson...
From the mid-1800s until World War II, the Asian country now known as Vietnam was in actuality controlled by France and operated as a colony; during WWII, then, the Japanese invaded the area so as to install a Vichy-style fascist government. It was the Vietnamese, in fact, who eventually rose up and ran this group out of the country at the end of the war, led and funded by local communists who were being secretly supported by Soviet Russia; at this point the French tried to come back in and re-establish colonialism, but the 'Viet Minh' were having none of it. That led to what's now known as the 'First Vietnam War,' or 'Indochina War' if you want to get technical, which lasted for roughly a decade and which the French (backed secretly by US resources) lost; it led in 1954 to a splitting of the country into a North and South Vietnam, with a referendum two years later that was supposed to politically reunify them again. The referendum never happened, though, because of the US continuing to stockpile more and more military in the southern half of the country; it soon led to the 'Second Vietnam War,' the enemy now known as the Viet Cong, the war many more Americans are familiar with, the one that many people say we lost as well at the end of 1973 (which was more about us giving up fighting, which is why it's contested whether we should call it "losing a war"). And thus did the entirety of Vietnam become communist in the mid-'70s, which was kind of a disaster until 1986 when the country first embraced free-market capitalism; now in 2007 they're one of the economically fastest-growing countries on the planet, certainly of the so-called "third world," and last year hosted over three and a half million international tourists.
I bring you this little tutorial, of course, because you'll need it in order to get through the absolutely mindblowing Tree of Smoke, the latest novel by revered writer Denis Johnson, and a few weeks ago officially the recipient of this year's National Book Award. It. Is. An. Astounding. Book., make no mistake, one that floored me in a particular way a novel hasn't done to me in years; but it's also a book that asks a lot out of you as a reader, not the least of which is a good four to six weeks of commitment, not to mention a fairly good understanding of 20th-century Vietnamese history before starting, plus of course with it presenting a challenge to many radical liberals as to how to think of the very concept of "war" itself. It's one of those big books, you know, and by "big" I mean in a grand, old-skool, James Michener or Herman Wouk kinda way; a book with a dozen main characters, two dozen other minor ones, all of them scattered around the planet and coming to the same central core of a story from a dozen different backgrounds and mindsets. There are good things about such books and bad things; in this case, in my opinion, a lot more good than bad, but that's partly because I'm a big fan of these kinds of novels in the first place. It's certainly one of those books that people love giving awards to, because it feels good to give an award to a book like this; it's a hefty one, not only emotionally and intellectually but also its sheer physical weight, something that makes you feel like you really accomplished something by making it all the way through.
So why does Johnson's name ring a bell, you're thinking? Well, because he's the previous author of the story collection Jesus' Son, considered by a whole lot of people to be one of the best and most essential books of our times, which was made into a major indie film in 1999 starring such heavyweights as Billy Crudup, Samantha Morton and others. Johnson is in fact known as a "writer's writer," and uh-oh, you know what that means; that's right, highly stylized writing found from the very first page to the very last, something designed on purpose to either immediately appeal to you or immediately rub you the wrong way. I, for example, liked Johnson's personal style quite a bit; if you ask me, it's very similar to the best work of David Mamet, using the natural rhythms and slang of blue-collar masculinity and then abstracting it almost to the point of being a slam poem. But I am absolutely positive that there are a certain amount of you right this moment rolling your eyes and feeling a little queasy just at the mention of "writer's writer," "Mamet," "blue-collar masculinity" and "slam poem" in the same paragraph; and for all of you, you are going to just hate the way Tree of Smoke feels and sounds, with there never really being a chance of you eventually "warming up" to it.
So now that we've established that, let's move on what the story is about; and as mentioned, that's mostly Vietnam, with the plot itself taking place from the end of the Kennedy years to the end of the Manson ones, with all the implications that come with using those two particular names. Because Tree of Smoke, frankly, is a 600-page record of things going wrong; things going wrong in a grand, unbelievable way, in fact, in a way that civilized Americans never thought could go so horribly wrong, a way that 35 years after its end still haunts us as a nation and that can still cause fights in bars just by bringing up. As those who were in charge of the fiasco start rapidly dying these days, we as a society are still grappling to understand what happened, of how we could so corrosively blacken the soul of so many millions of otherwise decent American citizens turned soldiers, and still not manage to win what was supposed to be a minor skirmish in the jungle. And of course with Bush and his crew so rapidly recreating these days all the bad situations that arose during Vietnam as well, these issues have taken on an even bigger and more profound importance, with a lot of Americans now asking not only how we can avoid a repeat of the tremendous psychological problems that came with fighting in that war, but how we can change the entire process of gathering intelligence for fighting such a war, and why it is that our usual intelligence-gathering processes have broken down so profoundly in both real cases.
Because that's an important thing to understand about Tree of Smoke, that its core storyline takes place among the intelligence community of the Bond-era '60s CIA; this is where the title of the novel comes from, in fact, a psy-ops spook mission conceived by a small cabal of field agents at the center of the story, led by a larger-than-life Japanese POW camp survivor from WWII who is now a shady "advisor" in Vietnam during the US's very quiet first days there. Colonel Sands, as he's known, has a problem with how the CIA currently works, based on his decades now of being in the field in southeast Asia; that is, the flow of information up and down the chain of command is fatally screwed up in his opinion, because of the upper people back in Washington needing certain info from the lower people in the field in order to politically justify their actions, and thus the lower people in the field feeling compelled to make up false information in order to appease the upper people back in Washington. If we're not careful, Sands intones in a scholarly article he writes on the subject halfway through the book, awhile down the road in US history we might just see an entire unnecessary war started this way, because of false info being fed to gullible politicians, from self-serving intelligence agents with no oversight and no sense of personal accountability.
It's sneaky, but it's there; Johnson definitely uses part of the real story from our disaster in Vietnam as a commentary on the Bush administration's current disaster in Iraq, which of course is a big reason it won this year's National Book Award, and is ultimately a book about war that a lot of anti-war people have recently been rallying behind. But like I said, I think it's a mistake for anti-war liberals to go into Tree of Smoke thinking that they're automatically going to love it, because many of them won't; this is ultimately a book about the military, written by a guy obviously not only familiar with the military but who agrees with many of its precepts. In fact, you could almost call this novel more appealing to politically moderate and conservative lovers of the arts, who often have a difficult time finding intelligent projects that deeply appeal to them; because ultimately, in my opinion anyway, this book starts with the assumption that war is sometimes an inevitable thing, that it's a part of the human condition, and that the best thing to do is learn how to get them finished and over as quickly as possible, even if that means a certain amount of deliberate cruelty and bloodshed at the beginning.
This of course is why I compare the book to the work of Michener and Wouk, is because it takes not only a detailed look at war but also a multifaceted look at it, of all the different personality types that come to a military situation and of all the ways they react to the bloody, chaotic, morally ambiguous things going on around them. There is my favorite character, for example, a fellow CIA agent called Storm, a weasely little intellectual psy-ops freak, who takes all the drugs and attitudes of the counterculture back home and thinks instead of how to best use them to screw with the heads of the North Vietnamese. There are the brothers Bill and James Houston as another example, antisocial and violence-prone rednecks who suffer very different fates as enlistees, one never quite getting the hang of military discipline and the other excelling in the psychotic edges of the front-line fighting. There are liberal doctors who are part of our story here, northern communists who turn double agents, French Catholic Vietnamese priests in the middle of the jungle, and just a whole lot more, painting a deep and broad portrait of a time and place in history that will never be exactly duplicated again.
Oh, there are just so many other great things I could say about this book! And like I said, that's again something to be warned about it; that it is an unusually large and dense tome, not only over 600 pages in length but also so thick and interesting that even my own personal reading rate was slowed in half. I usually average 100 pages a day of reading, and it took even me almost three entire weeks to get through Tree of Smoke; those who read at a more normal rate should budget in at least a month to a month and a half to get through it themselves. If you make the effort, you'll find an endlessly fascinating and multilayered storyline, one with many more nuances and aspects than I could even hope to touch on in this review; but like I said, to be warned, this opinion is coming from a deeply personal and subjective aspect today too, and that there will be a lot of people out there who will naturally despise the book for the same exact reasons I loved it. You can easily get the sense of which one you are by page 30 or so; if you're not digging Tree of Smoke by then, I recommend not trying to slog through the other 570 pages of it.
Out of 10: