Denis Johnson’s new novel, the most deserving winner of the National Book Award, is sprawling, ambitious, at times delirious, as labyrinthine as the Southeast Asian jungles it regularly returns to. It is a messy, profound and vehemently imperfect sort of masterpiece that attempts to grapple with the Vietnam War, the whole damned thing, in one monolithic block of text, arguably making it akin to Don DeLillo’s Underworld, which selected The Cold War as its one massive historical essence to conjure, and grapple with. It is as huge and demanding in every way as Johnson’s previously most famous novel Jesus’ Son (1992) was intimate, oneiric and diminutive. It’s the sort of novel that generates incredible excitement, and will likely come to be resented by readers who prefer their Emperors naked, and reduce Johnson’s brick of prose to an unruly, disorganized and inordinately defiant stunt. Me? I was enthralled.
Though it’s tricky to pin down a single protagonist in Tree of Smoke, I guess it must be Skip Sands, an idealistic young man from Kansas developing a career in intelligence. Yet in reading the book I became so attached to the Houston brothers, two shaggily likable guys –one of whom was first seen in Johnson’s Angels (1983)– whisked from a most arid Arizona and dropped into alien fields of blood, chaos, decay, cheap beer and prostitutes. There’s also an aid worker from Winnipeg, and a couple of Vietnamese military men who charge Johnson’s grand wash of a narrative with palpable feeling, personality and much humour as it rattles its way from 1963 all the way to 1983.
On display here are many of the idiosyncratic rhetorical jewels that have made Johnson’s voice such a witty, memorable one. He writes terrific dialogue in broken English, a skill that gives a special potency and pointed humour to moments of despair. There are countless character descriptions like this one: “He was both barrel-chested and pot-bellied, also bowlegged, also sunburned… He wore a silver flattop haircut on a head like an anvil.” Yet there are also passages of character development deftly handled through ribald, well-chosen juxtaposition: “Skip was afraid of women. The pork chops came, succulent, moist.” And there is the constant undercurrent of rationalizations for the imposition of force and ideology, and the hows and whys of the US in Vietnam: “The land is their myth. We penetrate the land, we penetrate their national soul.”
Considering the many correlations to be made between the US-led war addressed in Tree of Smoke and the one going on today in Iraq, it might be useful to boil it all down to one of Johnson’s pet themes, the power of karma. Karma mounts like a terrible, out of control mass, feeding on brutality, delusion and betrayal, as the novel lurches toward its devastating finale. But karma is also considered eloquently right in the opening pages, following that seemingly incidental slaying of a monkey: “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 he’d done. Yet he understood, without much alarm or unease, that he wouldn’t be spared this sight forever.”
(This review originally appeared in The Edmonton Journal.)