Tree of Smoke
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Amazon Significant Seven, September 2007: Denis Johnson is one of those few great hopes of American writing, fully capable of pulling out a ground-changing masterpiece, as he did in 1992 with the now-legendary collection, Jesus' Son. Tree of Smoke showed every sign of being his "big book": 600+ pages, years in the making, with a grand subject (the Vietnam War). And in the reading it lives up to every promise. It's crowded with the desperate people, always short of salvation, who are Johnson's specialty, but despite every temptation of the Vietnam dreamscape it is relentlessly sober in its attention to on-the-ground details and the gradations of psychology. Not one of its 614 pages lacks a sentence or an observation that could set you back on your heels. This is the book Johnson fans have been waiting for--along with everybody else, whether they knew it or not. --Tom Nissley

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.

"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 America. That's me." This is the story of Skip Sands—spy-in-training, engaged in Psychological Operations against the Viet Cong—and the disasters that befall him on account of 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 and into a war where 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.

Customer Reviews:

  • Vietnam Collage
    Tree of Smoke, Johnson's sprawling novel about Vietnam, is structured around the narratives of many characters, which include The Colonel, a hybrid of Colonel Kurtz and Lt. Colonel Bill Kilgore from Apocalypse Now (a dash of Hannibal from the A Team); Skip Sands, the Colonel's nephew and fellow CIA operative; Kathy Jones, a humanitarian worker from Canada; brothers Bill and James Houston; Lt Storm, an insane violent psychedelic dervish who supports The Colonel; and Vietnamese men Trung, a Buddhist Vietcong double agent, and How, a Saigon businessman working with the Americans.

    TOS has many great things about it. As those familiar with Johnson's work will attest, the prose is electric - engaging, energetic, fresh. The characters of the Houston brothers and Skip Sands stand out as especially strong, distinct, and moving. Brothers James and Bill are the typical down and out, edge of respectable society guys that Johnson is so good at bringing to life. Skip Sands also comes across well. He is an introspective man, educated, morally conscious. His struggle is the struggle of the nation, full of good intentions and patriotism, faith in God, etc, which all come under fire when confronted with ludicrous nature of the war.

    TOS's main weakness is it tries to accomplish too much with too many different points of view. The result is too much expository writing, too much generalization. Overall Johnson grapples with many themes - religion, patriotism, horror, innocence, death. These are big issues, better dealt with obliquely, through the specificity of characters and their situations. As a result of generalization, many of the characters feel flat. Colonel Sands is a complete stock character taken right out of a mediocre movie. Lt Storm speaks like a bad television movie - "this is getting psychedelic, man!" The Vietnamese characters are never fully penetrated, and feel as though they are placed in the novel to provide some sort of balance to the American perspective. Kathy Jones only comes alive at the very end of the novel.

    I found the book worth reading all the way through. The total perspective on the Vietnam War is nothing new, and in no way compares to classics like Herr's "Dispatches" or most of Tim O'Brien's oeuvre. There is a directionless to the book that I found frustrating, but flashes of greatness as well.

    One word of note, the plot definitely picks up at the end, and I found the last third by far the best - so keep reading.
    ...more info
  • Not A Vietnam Novel
    I picked up this novel because I thought it was about Vietnam. As it turns out, it was this author's fantasy of his presumption of Vietnam. I also thought he had been to Vietnam, and it turns out that he was not. Aside from some obvious errors (he names F-16 aircraft which did not exist), this is a pretentious acid trip novel. To be sure, there are moments of odd, almost mystical writing, but they are well buried in page after page of the dense quagmire of this author's mind.

    As a bit of fantasy nonsense, this is adequate, but it is hardly any definitive story about the Vietnam war. I noticed it was lauded by major critics, who knowing nothing about Vietnam, jumped aboard this yellow submarine with Johnson and presumed they were being taken for a truth ride.

    As a weird fantasy trip, this novel is an interesting time-waster. As anything serious, its a waste of time....more info
  • Emotional return to
    I expected a literal trip into the madness again, but was surprised as to the creative and unique vision that flowed from this book. The characters and points of view presented were not the usual war stories. What saddened me as always, is that we appear to be repeating the same mistakes again in Iraq as we did back then. As the North Vietnamese saying goes, "the anvil outlasts the hammer." Will we ever learn?...more info
  • Is there an editor in the house?
    Really? National Book Award? Really? Although Johnson has captivating scene followed by captivating scene, the book as a whole is bloated and over-written. I kept waiting for the corner to be turned and for there to be a tremendous payoff, but I finally ran out of steam and did something I rarely do. I gave up after 500 pages. With slightly more than 100 pages to go, I simply lost my will to care. Johnson is attempting to put together a mosaic. He goes about it in the right way -- he selects beautiful tiles, in this case, interesting scenes and brilliant dialogue. But in stepping back from this impressive tome, I'm not sure he has fully accomplished what he set out to do: to look at all the complicated and confusing aspects of the Vietnam War and put them into a cohesive narrative. It was a worthy effort, but in the end, arguably, a failed attempt....more info
  • Maybe you had to be there??
    Woo Hoo! I finished this ridiculous book!!

    After about 120 pages, I started to enjoy the fluid wording but the characters were not interesting, the plot was slow, the character transitions were untimely and I began to lose interest. Persistently I trudged ahead believing something would jump out and hook didn't happen.

    Towards the end, the book just became plain weird. When I finished, I closed the book and concluded this is one of the worst books I have ever read. I am still perplexed; Did I miss some hidden meaning?

    Perhaps the drugs mentioned in this book should be a prerequisite to your reading sessions.

    I just didn't get it...
    ...more info
  • A very difficult read
    I seldom give up on books but I had to abandon this after about 400 pages (yes - it is a long book with about 700 pages!). The author has won many awards and the book had numerous positive reviews that tempted me to buy it. But the heavy symbolism, unconnected characters, slow pace etc makes it very difficult to read. Even after 400 pages, the plot was not clear and the book became very boring.

    Though the back of the book carries positive reviews from many well known sources, I would recommend prospective readers to browse through a few of the pages (just the first 2 or 3 will not do) at random and make sure they like this style, before buying it....more info
  • Quiet American: an encore
    Between Kleist and Conrad, I need to look at contemporaries once in a while, just for fairness to the new writers and for keeping updated.
    I have frequently picked up award winners like this one (National Book Award for fiction in 2007) and have found them a mixed crop, as could be reasonably expected. I met some good writers this way, and I have been disappointed a lot as well. (Maybe most of all by the fairly recent German Nationaler Buchpreis.)

    Where is Denis Johnson in this scenario? I would say, on the 'not bad' shelf, but not quite on the 'great' shelf. What have we got? A Vietnam novel, always a subject that interests me. Actually, there is a broader scope, it goes back to the Philippines with roots into WW2.

    The 'story' is a multiplicity of stories, you can read each chapter as a short story if you want, but they are all interconnected and they span a time line of 20 years. Each story is in itself fairly simple, none has a traditional 'ending', I guess because real life does not offer stories with an ending.

    You have a multiplicity of characters from all sides, but the main theme is taken from Graham Greene's Quiet American. Greene's 'hero' Pyle's real life model Lansdale has a cameo appearance here. That book is even quoted by one of the characters (a Canadian missionary; she also mentions the 'Ugly American', a quite different story, which Johnson's hero misunderstands.)

    The writing is deceptively simple, the plot is more complex. Once in a while the simple writing develops special charms, when I have to chuckle over an observation or admire a simile.
    'Are you sober? Slightly.'
    Not knowing anything about the author before starting this book, I looked around here in amazon among the other reviews and also looked up information on his other books. It seems, Johnson has a reputation for writing under the influence, or let's say, dreamworlds are part of his world. Actually, more often this text here is more sober than one would wish it to be, though most of his protagonists are not sober quite a lot of their time.

    What does the title mean? It is from Joel 2,30, and refers to the judgement day. My English version of the Bible has it as 'columns of smoke', but apparently 'trees' is an accurate translation of the Hebrew text. As you might have guessed, out secret service heroes use the term for one of their clandestine operations.

    What did Greene write about Pyle, in the words of the journalist who is narrating the story (Michael Caine in the recent movie)? I never knew a man who had better motives for the trouble that he caused. The problem with the progress of history is that even these simple categories get blurred....more info
  • Bloated
    What a long-winded novel that has been falsely praised. These character are flat, poorly written, and offer no degree of complexity. I would hope this is not America's finest writer for we are in big trouble if it is. If you want a novel that reveals the complicated world of Vietnam, read The Things They Carried. ...more info
  • The American Anabasis
    Dennis Johnson's Tree of Smoke is mythopoetic in its reach and ambition, excavating through the different levels the postwar American involvement in Asia. Johnson's narrative shifts through time, place and people as he attempts to tell an allegorical tale that mirrors the American anabasis through Asia in the 20th century. Through the haunting passion of Skip Sands and his legendary uncle the story is one of the CIA itself- the hope, dreams, pain and innocence that went into that noble war. But it is so much more than that. By taking in the grand scope Johnson's book shows us the consequences both moral and physical of the American engagement in Southeast Asia- but not in the way most would assume. In many ways Johnson succeeds maybe where he never intends: He makes noble the dreams and idea that drove America into Asia- As Michael Herr wrote in another time and place "There was such a dense concentration of American energy there, American and essentially adolescent, if the energy could have been channelled into anything more than noise, waste and pain it wold have lighted up Indochina for a thousand years."

    Johnson's Tree of Smoke is like the Tree of Life we glimpsed in that corridor between California and Vietnam- that road that was our anabasis our "march up country" towards nobility and hope. The Tree of Smoke is a poetic tribute to the spook war, the grunts and the Vietnamese. Its about the fantasies and freedom that most men never know. Its a haunting reminder of those lost to headquarters but who loved the Vietnamese with their brains- and their hearts. Its about the ops they ran or dreamed of running only to find the ideal had become reality and was being run back on them-obscured and disfigured. But as Johnson shows history changes baby, and war took on a life of its own and the dreamers became as Herr noted so hauntingly and which Johnson makes flesh: "the saddest casualities of the sixties, all the promise of good service on the New Frontier either gone or surviving like the vaguest salvages of a dream, still in love with their dear leader, blown away in his prime and theirs-" The Tree of Smoke. ...more info
  • The Way It Was, or The Way It Seemed
    It's hard to know exactly what to say about this book. The Vietnam War was a defining moment for people of my generation and books about it are difficult to read objectively. But all in all, I found this to be an excellent book. The narrative is slow and develops over a period of time. The characters are well defined and the interplay is exact and realistic. If you are looking for a fictionalized history of the Vietnam War, look elsewhere; this book is about the people who where there, CIA, Army, Vietnamese, and civilians and how the war effected them.

    I have to admit a prejudice against the CIA and much of this book is about the CIA's involvement in the politics of SE Asia and the agency does not come off looking good. So as far as that is concerned, I was very much in agreement; but whether or not this is an accurate account, I cannot tell. The book accurately, in my experience, portrays the devastating consequences to the individuals who participated.

    This is the first book by Denis Johnson I have read and it was good enough to make me interested in reading more. The book has received critical acclaim and I cannot argue with that. Read the book, I think you'll enjoy it, or at least be stimulated by it.
    ...more info
  • Very, very dull
    When the most helpful positive review for a novel includes the word "ponderous" in its title, it should give you pause. Ponderous is a good word for this novel. Dull is another. It's not that nothing happens. It's that people stand around thinking disjointed existential thoughts for 30 pages, then something happens in a single paragraph (say, someone gets killed),and then we get another 30 pages of disjointed existential thoughts about the one paragraph worth of action.

    I didn't particularly care for the author's style, which is sort of dispassionate and deceptively lean. I say "deceptively," not because the writing actually contains deep reserves of hidden meaning, but because the book is over 600 pages long, which definitely does not qualify as "lean" to my way of thinking. It is over 250 pages before much of anything seems to happen, and the book has a rather lengthy epilogue (over 70 pages), where again not much of anything happens, so that' really over half the book if you think about it. Even if Denis Johnson's prose were the greatest joy this side of Heaven, that's a lot of joyous prose to slog through....more info
  • Sorry....
    I was looking forward to reading this book more than any other novel of the year based on all the positive reviews I read, but 70 pages in and I was done... Maybe I should have given it more time to develop but what I read up to then was of no interest or excitement to me, and i hate to leave books unfinished....more info
  • Up in Smoke
    I got my first taste of this novel when I read a chapter published as the short story "1966" which appeared in the June 2007 fiction issue of The New Yorker. The story was typical of Johnson's prose in that it followed characters living on the edge of society, engaged in chaotic, painful lives, but describing everything as if it was nothing unusual. While such a rambling, bender-filled narrative can be tolerated and even enjoyed in short spurts, it starts to become untenable in a massive novel such as this.

    Perhaps the most interesting character in the book is Colonel Francis X. Sands, a brash braggart who shuns military fatigues, and yet has incredible pull with almost all military branches-clandestine and not. The story, though, unfortunately focuses on Sands's nephew, Skip, who, fresh out of CIA training camp longs for action and slowly watches his sanity ebb in the trauma of war. Skip is not a character we sympathize with easily, and the rest of the cast meets our needs no better. The language, imagery, and authenticity of this story seem beyond reproach, but the pacing and narrative arc will most likely make you put this behemoth away before the choppers lift off from Saigon....more info
  • Dreadful
    This has got to be one of the WORST books ever to win the national book award. All the praise for it is mystifying. The story and characters are uninvolving, implausible, even laughable. The Colonel? A cliche from first appearance to last. His dialog is particularly bad in a book in which no one speaks like a real flesh and blood person. The prose is almost a parody of flatness, except when the author strains periodically to impress. Then the prose is cringe-inducing -- on the level of a college writers' workshop.

    I think Johnson read Dispatches by Michael Herr and thought, "This is a cool book. I'm going to write one like it." The problem is that Johnson is not nearly the writer or thinker that Michael Herr is. He's got nothing original or interesting to say, and says it all in the most uninteresting way possible.

    ...more info
  • Long, tedious, sad, angry and confusing. It was awful!
    I can't resist novels about Vietnam. And this 1997 book had absolutely rave reviews. It even won the National Book Award. Reviewers called it a masterpiece. I just HAD to read it. Now, 702 pages later, I'm sorry I did. This book was just plain awful. And the only satisfaction I got out of slogging through this long and tedious read is to be able to review it and say, "well - I tried".

    The book starts in 1963 and spans about 20 years. During this time we see various characters go through their sad lives. There's Skip who is a CIA agent. There's his uncle who's a colonel, a war hero who's something like the part Marlon Brando played in Apocalypse Now. There are two Vietnamese men, one from the north and one from the south, who become part of the covert operations. There are two young brothers in the American army who just can't make it in the outside world. There's a Canadian nurse who provides a bit of romance for Skip. There are other characters too, all of them sad and angry. That's actually the theme of the book - sad and angry.

    The most characteristic thing about the book though is that it is confusing. I found it impossible to follow the plot. And all the characters seemed to blend together and I kept mixing up who was who. There are no bad guys and no good guys either. Everyone here is a loser. Reading this book is a downer. I hated it.

    Despite the rave reviews of the critics I cannot recommend this book at all. If you attempt to read it, don't say I didn't warn you....more info
  • Vietnam, receding in the rear-view mirror
    "Tree of Smoke" is big, convoluted, and meant to be consumed whole in a long read, immersing the reader in the reflections of a fun-house mirror, the military's disintegrating role in Vietnam. There's a flood of imagery, an exhausting descriptive style that one appreciates or soon is overwhelmed by. In its 600 pages are characters that, true to the times, seem to be aimless, or at least helpless in the way of unfolding disaster.

    Johnson has some heady company in writing about the watershed event of the 1960s, but at this remove from the events of 1963-1970 (the span of time covered in "Tree of Smoke") Vietnam is less a place of combat than a canvas to spread his cast of characters. Reviewers and many readers were dazzled by the novel's hallucinogenic tone ("whacked-out" was another positive accolade) in which plot is secondary to the effect of the author's spiraling prose.

    Like many of its characters, the novel loses its way. The intent is to convey the undeniably chaotic forces at work in this unwinnable war; every man must find reasons for his survival, or work toward his redemption. Some find nothing but the heart of darkness. But survival or redemption requires a moral certainty, and here there is none. The characters only become more obscured in their jungle hell, and the Vietnam war oddly recedes from view as the novel progresses. The war remains central to the action, but as a refraction of the country's moral dilemma. For a novel with so much technical detail, which is considerable, Johnson manages to make Vietnam into a Hollywood abstraction.

    Much has been written about the book's echoes of Graham Greene in "The Quiet American," his tale of Vietnam during the French colonial period of the 1950s, and the character of Skip Sands does share some of the optimistic idealism of that novel's Alden Pyle. Both men have their dreams turn dark as their idealism fades. But this is just one aspect of "Tree of Smoke," and the two books describe different eras. Greene's story revealed itself in its British reserve; Johnson's novel is overstuffed with meaning, and spins with centrifugal force, filled with characters we have a hard time knowing, or much caring about.

    A big topic, a big book: reviewers and readers have given Johnson a large pass for this, but many of them may mistake the book's sheer weight for seriousness. Through the smoke and confusion we learn little about war or the human condition we don't already know, and of Vietnam even less.

    For more about "Tree of Smoke," visit BellemeadeBooks at info
  • what was I thinking?
    I'm not sure where I read a recommendation of this book but it is not great. Not good-could not even finish. big disappointment....more info
  • A Bright and Shining Truth
    I've been a fan of Johnson for some time now. To me Johnson is the American Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Tree of Smoke struck me as quite a bit better than his earlier books (those that I read anyway.) Johnson has always attempted to inject philosophical and religious points into his narratives and in his past works it was done rather awkwardly and unrealistically (e.g., the hit-man quoting Nietzsche in Already Dead.) But in Tree of Smoke he gets it right, the characters spiritual and philosophical underpinnings are woven seamlessly into the plot and make for an incredibly rich experience. The multitude of characters from very diverse backgrounds provide a wealth of different perspectives on life and faith. I especially appreciated that some of the main characters were Vietnamese. (I find that most American's are so self absorbed they can talk about the Vietnam War for hours and never mention the Vietnamese.)

    Also, I have to mention that the softcover edition's binding is fantastic. I was easily able to hold the book splayed open with one hand....more info
  • Not for me
    On average, I read about 2 books month. This book took me 2 months to read because I just had to force myself to pick this book up and read it. If you are going to read it, read it in long sessions as it jumps around a lot and switches characters frequently. If you read it in long sessions, you will get more out of it. I hate the writing style and the fact that there were no chapters, made this for a confusing read at times. Maybe it is just me, but this just wasn't a very well written book. I don't recommend this book and wish that I hadn't paid 30 dollars for the wasted time I spent trying to read it....more info
  • Boring - stereotypic characters - unengaging plot
    I wish I'd read BR Myers' review in the Atlantic (Dec 2007) before I bought this book. His review was titled "A Bright Shining Lie," and he nails how I feel about "Tree of Smoke." [...].

    I read a LOT and widely. I rarely hate a book, but I truly hated this one. I never cared about or was engaged with the one-dimensional, unauthentic characters. I could not relate to a single one of them. One can't get to know the characters because there is nothing to know.

    The plot seemed, well, not there. I never felt dramatic tension or cared what happened next.

    There is no sense of place that matters - the setting is a jungle or a village close to a jungle. It doesn't matter whether it's the Philippines or Vietnam. The author may describe water dripping off leaves, but there is no feeling connected to the location.

    The author surely wasn't in Vietnam. Factual errors add to the biased view of who served in the Vietnam: poor, stupid high school dropouts; idealistic midwestern patriot (Skip), psycho, over-the-hill, Dr. Strangelove CIA operative, inscrutable Vietnamese, mysterious German assassin, crazy missionary. Honestly, there isn't one nuanced character in this book.

    Why would this book add anything to a discussion of the Vietnam War? Why would anyone think this is the BEST book about the Vietnam War? "Tree of Smoke" is pathetic in comparison to Mailer's "The Naked and the Dead" or O'Brien's "The Things They Carried" or Herr's "Dispatches." The book gave no insights into a war that, unfortunately, still defines my generation.

    I disagree with another reviewer that this book reflects American disillusionment after World War II. "Tree of Smoke" never reaches the level of generalization because it is so flat and has so little to say.

    That this won the National Book Award is just amazing. What were they thinking? Save your money and rent "Apocalypse Now." Marlon Brandon plays a much more interesting psycho, and the movie, at least, has great music....more info
  • What a Mess!
    Please, someone, call an editor for Denis Johnson. Subplots that never converge, a virtual recasting of the messy ending of Apocalypse Now!, and terrible inaccuracies are among the sins of this overwrought, poorly written mess. To call this one of the best books about Vietnam is to do injustice to masterpieces such as The Things They Carried. This was an incredible waste of time. I must say, the review in The Atlantic says it all....more info
  • i loved it
    This is a book of rare excellence. It keeps you enthralled without being a 'page turner'. I think its strength results from the characters to whom you develop an attachment. It's not like you constantly feel the need to keep going to see what happens next, but the characters draw you in and every time you lie down to read, you can't help but be excited to see where each character is going to end up taking you tonight....more info
  • I loved it ... but ...
    It's easy to understand why most of the reviews of "Tree of Smoke" are either 5-star or 1-star -- it's that kind of novel.

    If your tastes are toward a crisp, linear plot with well-fleshed-out characters whose motives are fairly clear, this isn't your kind of novel. That's OK. If you're looking for a fiction treatment of actual events, this isn't your kind of novel either.

    But if you have some patience for the tortuous inner struggles of good people who've been driven to madness by wretched circumstances, told in a graceful and poetic manner, give this one a ride. It's a long ride, yes, and a bumpy one, but I found it well worth the effort. I probably read 70 novels a year, and this one is certainly no piece of cake, but it's at the top of my fiction list this season.

    A previous reviewer found problems with people who "weren't there" writing about the Vietnam experience. Fair enough. But even an observer who "wasn't there" can make a reasonable determination that the reality of the Vietnam experience was anything but linear and clearly defined.

    ...more info
  • The greatest Vietnam novel? I don't think so
    I've pretty much had it with guys of a certain age who skated past Vietnam or military service in any of the multitude of ways it could easily be done back in the day, and now choose to write about The Big One of our generation. Not so long ago it was Stephen King, who saw only My Lai (and got that wrong), and now it's Denis Johnson, who sees....what, exactly? Damned if I know. A catchy title from one of the better Bob Dylan songs can't save this huge train wreck of a novel from its own overwhelming inadequacy. There's no sense of place, no sense of character, and hardly anything in the way of a plot. You want well-written novels that really give you some insight about the war? Try any of the classics, like The Lionheads, Sand in the Wind, The Short-Timers, Tiger the LURP Dog, The 13th Valley, or a few dozen others written by guys who were actually there. This one is seriously overhyped. As Norman Mailer said, "Major war novels are not difficult to write - it's just difficult to find writers of sizable talent who come close to war."...more info
  • Wanted to love it
    I was very disappointed. I'd read Angels years ago and had wanted to get back to Johnson. My qualms are not with the writing--Johnson is a gifted stylist and you must be careful not to gloss over certain passages or paragraphs which are dense philosophical insights wrapped in great prose and at times poetry. Nor with the politics--those dismissing the book for its lack of aviation verisimilitude or because it wasn't as good a Vietnam book as some others, are evaluating an apple as an orange.

    My disappointment is with the characters and the plot. This is at heart an intellectual work: it ruminates and dazzles, but the characters remain distant and abstract, and each time I became caught up in a subplot, it would be discarded. It was a novel that made me think--but I also wanted to feel.

    Skip Sands is the fulcrum around which the novel moves, but I never was able to fully grasp his character--or care about him. And, while he thinks a lot, he doesn't do very much.

    Take my review, however, with a grain of salt. I've seen some reviewers refer to Tolstoy, and I have to admit, I felt the same way about Sands as I did about Pierre in War and Peace. ...more info
  • not another vietnam novel
    The book has some patches of good writing, and it does suck the reader in. However, one soon realizes that one is trapped in a swamp of shallow characters and murky events. The portrayal of the war seems to owe more to repeated watching of Apocalypse Now than any direct or original insights. The reality is much more weird and stunning than fiction, so you're better off reading histories and biographies. ...more info
  • A mixed bag..
    The inside of the jacket:
    This is the story of William "Skip" Sand, CIA - engaged in Psychological Operations against the Vietcong - and the disasters that befall him. This 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 its vision of human folly, this is a story like nothing in our literature.

    First of all, I read this book, sort of the same way I watch The Unit on television. When I watch The Unit, I am usually sitting on the couch, paging through a magazine. When a scene comes on with the wives, I put down my magazine and watch, when the war story comes back on, I pick back up my magazine. Why do I even watch The Unit?? Because I control about 99% of our Tivo watching, my husband's 1% is The Unit and a couple of shows from Spike TV. If he can watch Project Runway, Criminal Minds, Top Chef, Real Housewives of Orange County, and all the other shows that I make him watch, then I can watch The Unit.

    So, anyway. I did read this book, all 614 pages of it. I could tell that it was a good book and an interesting book if you like war stories, and covert operations, and things like that. I just kind of paid more attention to the characters and their personalities and less on the covert operations part, and even then it held my interest. So, if you like war based stories, then you would probably really like this! ...more info
  • On The Cutting Edge of Reality
    "Tree of Smoke" is long, yes, and mostly talk. Especially for a war book, keep in mind that it's mostly talk. It's also compelling and riveting in its own unique way. I don't know what I would compare it too, but it's dense like Ken Kesey or Charles Dickens and epic like, say, "Catch 22." It works on the fringes of the war, as one character calls it, "on the cutting edge of reality, where it turns into a dream."

    So, a caution right up front: if you are looking for Vietnam war action like the movie "Platoon," look elsewhere. This book takes place, for the most part, above and around the war. There are a few exceptions, but the book seems to be as much about what it takes to fight and to win a war. It's about the psychological warfare, deception and spies. But at every level, "Tree of Smoke" examines what it takes to go to war, to conduct a war, to believe in war. "We've lost the war, we've lost the heart," says one character and we all know where Vietnam ends up, so the arc is predictable but Johnson's ability to imagine these conversations and these characters is what keeps you going.

    I think what Johnson is saying more than anything is that it takes faith and firm belief to wage war and to win one.

    Recommended for readers who enjoy a long, thoughtful and hearty meal. This is the opposite of a quick-paced thriller; it's slow and contemplative.

    One note: I listened to this book on audio CD. I've seen some other comments about Will Patton's performance being less than stellar. Hardly. Patton's delivery is brilliant. Terrific and subtle nuances in his delivery made each character distinct - a Brit, a Filipino, the Americans, the Vietnamese - and his inflection was nearly as brilliant as the dialogue. What a great book to listen to, particularly with Patton as your guide.
    ...more info
  • "War and Peace" for the United States
    Judging from the distribution of reviews, most people either love "Tree of Smoke" or hate it. I loved it. In fact, it's the best contemporary novel I've read in years.

    Like "War and Peace," "Tree of Smoke" examines both the universals of human life and a war that transformed the nations involved. TOS sweeps over 20 years -- covering the war from 1963 to '70, with a denouement in 1983 -- and shows us the experience through the lives of CIA agents, enlisted men, Western humanitarians, and South Vietnamese. One of its themes is America's confusion in Southeast Asia, but saying so really does injustice to Johnson's accomplishment. TOS is moving and disturbing as only the best literature can be....more info
  • A Three Star Novel
    The writer Chaim Potok said once in an lecture I heard him give that a librarian had told him, when he, as a youngster, was checking out a book by Evelyn Waugh-- whom he thought was a woman-- that one should always give a book he didn't like 100 pages before quitting reading if the writer was a respected author. I thought of Mr. Potok's advice many times while reading TREE OF SMOKE-- all 614 pages-- although I soldiered on, hoping against hope that it would get better. Winner of the National Book Award for 2007 and praised by critics in most major publications save one that I was able to find, B. R. Myers' review in the ATLANTIC MONTHLY, TREE OF SMOKE is about Vietnam and covers a span of years from 1963, the year of President Kennedy's death, to 1970 and then skips to 1983. It has many characters including Skip Sands who works for the CIA, his bigger-than-life uncle, Colonel Francis Sands, two redneck brothers in arms, Billy and James Houston, an Adventist nurse named Kathy, several North Vietnamese and South Vietnamese characters as well as many bit players. Almost to a person the characters are not sympathetic. War is hell, the Vietnam War and all others. There is enough sex and cynicism to go around. Johnson, a recovering drug addict, sees the universe as pretty depraved. It is one of violence and betrayal. Kathy comes closest to the moral center in this novel although it very well may be outside this story. One character describes a situation as "Disneyland on acid."

    Much of this far-too-long novel is tedious although occasionally brief passages stand out but they are too few and far between. Johnson's description of Skip Sands' grief and guilt, upon learning belatedly of the death of his mother, for example: "Then remorse crushed him physically, the blood pounded in his head, he struggled for breath-- he hadn't called, hadn't written, left her to ride to her death on a gurney all alone in helplessly polite apologetic midwestern confusion and fear."

    Vince Passaro's review in NEWSDAY, where he heard in this novel "Whitman in his erotic excess," has to be the strangest comments any reviewer has made about TREE OF SMOKE. Occasionally I heard Hemingway, but certainly never Whitman, in the sex scenes between Skip and Kathy-- I hesitate to call them love scenes. Case in point: "It rained again, and then it was night. She couldn't return now to the missionaries in Bac Se. They slept together side by side, without sheets, she in one of his rough hand-washed T-shirts and he in boxer undershorts. Following breakfast the next morning she left for Baca Se on her black bicycle, and Skip never saw her again." This passage could have been straight out of A FAREWELL TO ARMS.

    Johnson pretty much sums up his novel in a passage on page 192: "Deals struck in a half dozen languages, sinister rendezvous, false smiles, eyes measuring the chances. Psychos, wanderers, heroes. Lies, scars, masks, greedy schemes." Charles Bukowski would have liked this novel. Tolstoy would have not.

    (You can go back and correct everything in a review except the rating. I meant to give this novel three stars.) ...more info
  • Tell me a story, daddy
    I believed the fancy-a** reviewers who as good as told me that this the book of the year and then some. From beginning to end, I didn't know what was going on, and why.

    Oh, yeah, I hear it. "You are one of those 'tell me a story, daddy' pre-schoolers." Yes, I am very old fshioned. Give me Jane Austen anytime.

    Or Mailer's The Naked and the Dead: that platoon's experience was as bad as anything that went down in VietNam; all frontline war is hideous.

    Why did the colonel do this; why did Skip do that? And who hired the German to do what? And why? But I repeat myself. Not only did I hate this book, but my wife, who is a good bit smarter, hated it too....more info
  • If you gave this fewer than 4 stars, you missed the point.
    Another spare, haunting novel from masterful Denis Johnson. At times frightening, sad, funny, bitter, poignant, and always relevant, Tree of Smoke is a smart and eloquent piece that will be remembered, particularly when compared against its contemporaries in the current "fluffy" period in American literature. I did not enjoy every page, but the overall message of the book is striking and well-told. If you haven't read Johnson before, this may be a tough start, but if you have, you will relish the experience....more info
  • Very long, very dense
    I'm a fan of Denis Johnson, and I was looking forward to reading this. It turned out to be a more arduous experience then I anticipated, and not really in a good way.

    There's a lot in here cribbed from other sources (Conrad's Heart of Darkness for one, and, by extension, Apocalypse Now). I was hoping that Johnson's voice would bring something new to the table; unfairly, perhaps, I was interested in seeing the aesthetic of Jesus' Son brought to bear on Vietnam, and that's not what this is.

    Johnson is a fundamentally strong writer who typically finds interesting ways around a sentence. The language is shaped well, and there are more than a few scenes that are very vividly crafted. It's a Denis Johnson novel, so if you find his literary voice appealing, you find much of this as well.

    On the negative side, I didn't find myself responding emotionally to much in this story. The main character's journey from company man to wild outsider was not convincing, nor was his relationship with the missionary. I wasn't engaged like I had hoped, or expected, to be.

    The reviews for this book are generally positive, and it's picked up some nice award nominations. It is by no means a bad book- most of it is quite good. I just found that the whole was much less then the sum of its parts.

    ...more info
  • CIA Intrigue in Vietnam
    This novel is part of my ongoing effort to upgrade my reading list, having won a National Book Award in 2008. I found it to be generally very well written and captivating, but suffering from periods of dense prose and underediting.

    I must say that the review profile is one of the most unusual I've ever seen, an almost reverse bell curve. Readers either love it or hate it, which is somewhat surprising, because I really found it relatively easy to read and can't imagine what would impel anyone to give it a one or two star rating.

    In any event, the novel centers on the Vietnam War, however very little actual fighting is mentioned. Instead, intrigue by the CIA and various other intelligence agencies provide the basis for the story, which follows several disparate plot lines, some of which never seem to intersect.

    I've seen references to Apocolypse Now and the novel is deeply influenced by the character of Colonel Francis X. Sands, an old line CIA operative who has gone renegade and surrounded himself with accolytes to do his bidding. To these accolytes, Sands is a demi-god, much in the mold of Colonel Kurtz. Sands's nephew, Skip, is the primary character in the story. His interaction with the various other characters and the establishment's efforts to reign in "the Colonel" are what tie the novel together.

    At 614 pages of small typed, full pages, this is a relatively long book, at times in need of editing, in my opinion. There are a couple of story lines that don't seem to go anywhere, primarily those of Kathy Jones (I guess every book needs a love interest) and the brothers from Arizona, that while very entertaining don't seem to have any relevance to the story other than to interject the ugly, seedy world of the front line grunt.

    I've got to think that there is an outstanding 500 page novel somewhere in this book, but the periods of pretentious, dense prose (thankfully few and far between) and the filler material drags it down below the highest standard. A very worthwhile read nonetheless....more info
  • Disappointing
    After all the hype about this one I couldn't wait to read it when published in paperback. I've read thousands and thousands of books in my life and hardly ever give up, but I gave up on this one about a fourth of the way. It should have been titled "Impressions of Smoke" because it was just about as vague, wandering, and lost. I'm not asking to have everything spelled out for me, but this one was all over the place. Worst of all, it has no heart, its characters unknowable and uninteresting. Maybe as an allegory of the Vietnam experience it works, but I could never find the thread. ...more info