Reading Denis Johnson is like watching those car chase reality shows on TV. The speed and hi-jinks get your adrenalin pumping. And though the plot seems simple enough, the ending is always a surprise. Cops will tell you that there is only one way to pursue a vehicle, but a thousand ways for the chase to come to an end – none of them very pleasant.
Johnson’s characters follow a similar destiny. Some crash, others burn out, a few simply run out of gas. The most daring pull off the road into the fields, slamming through fences and barriers, hoping to find some makeshift path so daunting others won’t dare follow. But someone always follows. When you are hell bent and out of control, you never really escape – least of all from yourself.
Until a few weeks ago, Johnson was best known for a thin book of short stories, Jesus’ Son, a gripping collection which evokes the monologues of folks in rehab programs as they tell how they finally hit bottom. But Johnson’s latest novel, Tree of Smoke, has more buzz than a six-pack of malt liquor, and takes the hard-edged, gut wrenching world of Jesus’ Son to a new level. Last week, Tree of Smoke was nominated for a National Book Award, and the smart money says Johnson takes home the prize. In a year of prominent novels by big name authors (DeLillo, Chabon, Roth, Ondaatje), this ranks among the very best.
Some readers may steer clear of Tree of Smoke because they don’t have the stomach for another Vietnam story. After all, how much is there left to tell after the coals have been raked over by The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, The Things They Carried, Platoon, The Quiet American and so many other lesser efforts? But don’t let that stop you. Johnson’s exceptional novel never falls into the expected clichés of the stereotypical “war novel.” In fact, combat scenes account for very little of Tree of Smoke, and many of the most fascinating battles in its pages are merely psychological. Not that the author steers clear of bloodshed and violence. But in a Denis Johnson novel, no enemy troops are necessary for the “bang, bang, shoot, shoot” scenes, and sometimes the most piercing wounds are self-inflicted.
The novel builds around the figure of Francis Xavier Sands – known to all as “the Colonel” – a hard drinking, renegade CIA agent, and his wary if loyal nephew Skip Sands. Skip is a junior operative in the espionage ranks and, like so many others, he is hypnotized by the Colonel’s charisma and sheer cussedness. The Colonel played football under Knute Rockne at Notre Name, flew combat missions with the Flying Tigers in Burma, survived and escaped as a Japanese POW during World War II – and is now mounting a single-handed effort to disrupt and destroy communism in Southeast Asia.
But the Colonel distrusts his superiors, resents the bureaucracy of the Washington establishment, and takes orders only from himself. His plans are limited only by his own imagination. Should he lace the North Vietnamese tunnels with psychedelic drugs? Should he plant a rumor that some dissident group in the military has its own nuclear weapon and plans to blow it up in Ho Chi Minh’s backyard? Should he send his own double agent into North Vietnam? As the Colonel’s sidekick, the unhinged Sergeant Jimmy Storm, announces: “We want ideas blown up right to where they’re gonna pop. We’re on the cutting edge of reality itself. Right where it turns into a dream.”
Johnson builds several sub-plots around this main axis. We follow the exploits of Bill Houston (a major character in Johnson's first novel, Angels) and his younger brother James, who find that the same behavior that earns medals in Vietnam leads to prison back in the States. We unravel the complex relationship between Nguyen Hao, an operative for the Americans, and his Viet Cong friend Trung Than, in which the line between loyalty and betrayal becomes so blurred that every course of action is compromised. We trace the path of a Kathy Jones, who comes to Southeast Asia as wife of a Christian missionary, but leaves as one more burnt out case, leaving behind her religious faith and almost everything else.
Some have suggested that Johnson's dedication of Tree of Smoke – “Again for H.P. and Those Who” – is his tribute to a “higher power.” Certainly his characters invariably end up (if they survive at all) at the point where the twelve step program should begin. But the path to recovery and redemption is always elusive in Tree of Smoke. We find no simple inferno-to-paradise roadmap, as in Dante; no glib resolutions, as in so many war stories. Remember that corny scene at the end of The Deer Hunter where everybody sings “God Bless America”? Remember when they saved Private Ryan? Tree of Smoke is not that kind of story. But in its harrowing, relentless unfolding of a national tragedy made all too personal, it ranks among the finest war novels of our time.