Denis Johnson is a true American artist, and Tree of Smoke is a tremendous book, a strange entertainment … Tree of Smoke is a massive thing and something like a masterpiece; it’s the product of an extraordinary writer in full stride … The lines roll like billiard balls with weird English on them, they spin and skid, often just after their last comma, and then they plunge into their pockets with a crack … The grief I mentioned above: there are very few writers today who can get that on the page, and our literature is tepid without it.
It’s a powerful story about the American experience in Vietnam, with unsettling echoes of the current American experience in Iraq … Skip believes in the goodness and promise of America with boyish innocence and ardor...Skip’s innocence, however, is tarnished when he witnesses the agency’s brutal assassination of a priest (falsely suspected of running guns) in the Philippines, and in Vietnam he quickly becomes lost in the wilderness of mirrors created by his fellow intelligence officers … Mr. Johnson intercuts the stories of Skip and the colonel with those of half a dozen other people caught up in the war … Mr. Johnson not only succeeds in conjuring the anomalous, hallucinatory aura of the Vietnam War as authoritatively as Stephen Wright or Francis Ford Coppola, but he also shows its fallout on his characters with harrowing emotional precision.
Tree of Smoke, a tortuous epic of American counterinsurgency in Asia, presents an array of characters bearing familiar Johnsonian auras of desperation, threat, and abjection … Not all of Johnson’s characters find themselves so tormented, and some enjoy blessedly uncomplicated states of narcissism or depravity or mere unscrupulousness. But the people whom Johnson asks his readers to care about tend to be those who suffer queasy bouts of inner terror … Tree of Smoke carries with it a self-conscious air, as if Johnson has sought to create the definitive novel of the war, one that recapitulates the tropes that have evolved out of nearly half a century of writing and films about the conflict. But the book’s depictions, particularly the bleak tale of four-tour veteran James Houston and the soldiers with whom he serves, come perilously close to cliché.
Tree of Smoke is an ambitious, long, dense, daunting novel sited at the heart of a great American evil, the Vietnam War. It’s unusual—a gripping yet essentially plotless novel consisting of intercut segments of the lives of people caught up in the war … The stories of these people, the principals, as well as those of many of the subordinate characters, are told in free indirect voice—we have internal points of view provided across a population of players almost Tolstoyan in its sweep … Tree of Smoke is a study in collateral damage to the Americans who perpetrated the war. Primarily and in the foreground, at least, it is the damage to Americans on which Johnson is focusing in this book. These characters suffer ultimate penalties for their sins. They go mad, they end up dead, lost, alone—the gamut of terrible ends. Among the Americans, the war saves nobody and dooms many.
To write a fat novel about the Vietnam War nearly 35 years after it ended is an act of literary bravado. To do so as brilliantly as Denis Johnson has in Tree of Smoke is positively a miracle … This is war as hallucination. It's a story of the decomposition and degradation of the characters and, by implication, Vietnam … The Vietnamese here are timeless, features of a landscape against which the American characters batter themselves senseless...They take the beating America inflicts, but they seem impervious to it … As a serious war novel, Tree of Smoke is implicitly a story about all wars. And a reader cannot travel this journey without thinking about America's current war in Iraq.
Tree of Smoke starts off with one Seaman Bill Houston shooting a tiny monkey he sees in the jungle. (The symbolism of this happening hours after JFK’s assassination is crude in more ways than one.) … Anyone expecting a psychological novel from characters so lacking in complexity deserves to be disappointed … As for the action, it never feels authentic … Johnson has no sense of style, of which words are right for a given context. This in turn makes it difficult to figure out whose point of view we are dealing with … Johnson cannot comprehend the spiritual dimension of people’s lives, a dimension that, as the adage about foxholes reminds us, takes on more and not less importance during a war. In Tree of Smoke, religious faith is just a plot device to set off clichéd 'arcs' of guilt, self-abuse, and redemption.
This is a war novel in which the war never quite arrives. Instead, the tangled plot wraps itself around a handful of intelligence operatives, relief workers, and low-level grunts who hover around the peripheries of our decade-long quagmire in Vietnam … In lesser hands, any of these characters might have decayed into types, but Johnson invests each with a deep interiority, letting his or her mind wander at cross-purposes to the narrative … With its phony intelligence and its wartime hell built on the benevolent intentions of individuals like Skip, Tree of Smoke is an attempt to write about the present through the prism of the past.
It's a river trip back down into the heart of darkness that belongs to every war, but was Vietnam writ in Day-Glo script … Because the Vietnam War itself was a mass of conflagrations, tragedy, and mayhem slugging it out under a starless sky, Johnson has wisely chosen to fling his novel in several directions at once … In a novel of this length and span, it's the authorial sensibility that mandates the story, and Johnson's is aptly fitted to the ‘vampire mausoleum’ that was Vietnam: He captures the Machiavellian folly and addictive nightmare of the war as well as its walk off the cliff into darkness.
Tree of Smoke is a massive patchwork of people and stories that overlap and drift apart. Here, Johnson means to marry his sensibility to a more concrete political vision, using the war, and our chimerical objectives, as a way to address the unknowability of experience in the largest sense … What Johnson's getting at is a metaphysics of the battlefield, a psychic reckoning with Vietnam. Surprisingly, however, this is where Tree of Smoke breaks down … For Johnson, Vietnam may best be read as an elaborate metaphor, less geopolitical than geo-spiritual, a zone in which we lost not just our innocence but our souls. That's a classic Johnson setup, but as Tree of Smoke progresses, it gets too diffuse, too sprawling, until we ourselves grow disconnected, detached, lost.
Sands seems quite the paradigmatic spy – now we see him, now we don't – as the narrative weaves through the stories of several other characters … The breadth and length of the book require some patience from the reader...for a reader with stamina, the rewards come steadily … Johnson is a fine stylist of the world of soulful disaster...this time he merges his tightly tuned sense of language with the needs of an extended and complicated story … When it comes to creating the central metaphor of the book, from which the novel gains its title, it is surpassing in its brilliance.
The immensely talented Johnson delivers a beautifully layered, insightful and visceral montage of stories that examines the Vietnam War experience from multiple points of view … The colonel's outburst reflects a pattern in Tree of Smoke of well-meaning, at-one-time enthusiastic people losing faith in their missions, and even in God … One gets the sense that everyone in the long, colorful cast of characters in Tree of Smoke is on a Danteesque excursion through a hell of misguided intentions.
Tree of Smoke is about many countries, both real and mythic, and three families, two American and one Vietnamese, with their own conflicts and betrayals to contend with … Plenty of space is afforded to rumination and soul-searching, but Johnson is smart enough to recognize that something like the Tet Offensive can judiciously move along the pace: There is a time to dwell on the mythology of a place and then a time to hit the deck … Stylistically, it ranges from Hemingwayesque straightforward simplicity to Proustian narrative complexity and descriptive splendor. Johnson brings his talents as a poet to bear, especially when describing the jungles and cities of Asia.