Tree of Smoke — Denis Johnson

One year after it topped book critics’ best-of 2007 lists everywhere (including ours), Denis Johnson’s Vietnam War epic Tree of Smoke is finally available in a handsome trade-paperback. Picador’s edition retains the original orange and yellow cover, only now affixed with the proud blazon “National Book Award Winner.” However, that Tree of Smoke won this prestigious award no doubt ruffled a few feathers. It still remains an urgently divisive work.

Although plenty of critics and readers loved the novel, including The New York Times‘s Jim Lewis (who cautiously called it “something like a masterpiece”) and Michiko Kakutani, it has had more than its fair share of haters. Consider B.R. Myers’s downright mean review, “A Bright Shining Lie” in The Atlantic. Here, Myers displays the worst kind of vitriol. He’s the critic who feels the need not only to trumpet his hatred of the work he’s assessing, but also to lambaste the dignity, taste, and intellect of anyone who would disagree with him. Myers specifically attacks Johnson’s rhetorical style, his diction and syntax, and concludes that those idiots who would praise such inane, base, and clichéd language (idiots like me, that is) are clearly the cause of all current social and political problems and “have no right to complain about incoherent government.” Uh, sure. Myers’s baseless zealotry aside, it’s worth looking at the popular reception of Tree of Smoke, and what better place to do so than scouring Amazon reviews, right?

A cynic might say that Amazon reviews are the bottom-barrel of literary criticism, yet it’s still worth considering the almost perfectly mathematical split between 5- and 4-starred reviews of the book and 1- and 2-starred reviews (although none of the negative reviews I read on Amazon suggested that praising Johnson’s novel disenfranchised one from political opinions). Put simply, most people tend to either hate or love Tree of Smoke, which, I believe, is a sign of great art. And, were I inclined to inflate my rhetoric to a grandiose level like Myers, I might here wax philosophical about opinion, perspective, history, and the value of great art to ignite debate and discussion within the marketplace of ideas. However, I don’t think a book review is necessarily the best venue to make grand sweeping statements. At best, such writing presents a shallow or hollow endorsement of a collective truth (e.g. “Everyone assesses literature from their own perspective and therefore everyone values books differently”); at worst–in the case of Myers’s grotesque review–we get a pompous, overblown, self-important declaration (here, praising Tree of Smoke = losing the ability to authoritatively comment on society or politics) that can only be supported within the limited rhetorical bounds created the sophist has constructed (i.e. Myers’s review). But I’ve made a long digression, and, worse, I’ve failed to really discuss the book at all.

My initial review of Tree of Smoke last year was really a review of Will Patton’s masterful audio-recording of the novel (I was reading Ulysses for graduate school at the time and simply did not have the time to read both). I loved the experience; Patton did a great job, and I found myself wholly addicted to the narrative. When the advance copy of Tree showed up in the mail earlier this week, I immediately re-read the coda of the book in a single sitting. I would say the measure of a great narrative is not its core, its climax, or its beginning, but how well the conclusion is able to deliver the promises established throughout the book. Tree of Smoke delivers, and its ending continues to haunt the reader well after the book has been set aside. Readers like Myers may not get the payoff–he claims that “Johnson’s failure to understand [his character’s] faith is such that when he uses it to end the novel on an uplifting note, the reader feels nothing.” However, I hardly think that a watery Hallmark-word like “uplifting” properly connotes the weight, pathos, and sheer pain that Johnson conveys and addresses at the end of the book (Myers’s shallow diagnosis leads me to believe he merely skimmed the novel). Ethics of literary criticism aside, the real triumph of Tree of Smoke is simply that Johnson manages to comment in a new way on a subject that, by 2007, had been done to death. Who knew that we needed another story about the Vietnam War? Denis Johnson, apparently. Read the book for yourself. Very highly recommended.

Tree of Smoke is available in paperback from Picador on 2 September, 2008.

8 thoughts on “Tree of Smoke — Denis Johnson”

  1. I finished this book in a marathon 300 page sitting yesterday and am glad to hear that you enjoyed it as much as I did. I’ll probably get a hold of the audiobook version just to be able to experience such amazing prose in a different way.

    This the forth Johnson book I’ve read (Angels, Jesus’ Son, The Name of the World) do you have a favorite? I plan to read all of them, but it’s nice to have one specifically to look forward to.

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    1. Hey Ben, nice to hear from you again.
      I’m actually finishing up Angels right now–I started three weeks ago and stalled out at the rape scene. It was so ugly and cruel that I wanted to stop altogether. I started reading the book again this weekend though, and breaking through to meet some of the other characters outside of the two principals was a big help.

      I’ve only read Tree, Jesus’ Son, and Nobody Move (I have a copy of Fiskadoro but haven’t read it). Of those, I believe Tree is the better book, but Jesus’ Son is one of my all time favorite books (I’ve reviewed it here: https://biblioklept.org/2008/01/12/essential-short-story-collections-jesus-son/ ).
      I’ll try to review Angels at the end of this week.
      How was The Name of the World?

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  2. Yeah I almost stopped reading Angels at that exact part but if you push past the book gets better. I almost had the sense that it was written linearly, given how the pace and changes so much once they get to Phoenix. It’s ultimately really good but it’s not surprising that it’s his first novel. It’s funny but I actually almost stopped reading it when it first cut to Chicago and tried to get me to believe that she’d left him in pennsylvania and then took a bus to Chicago just to wonder and find him which at the time I thought was so absurd and ridiculous.

    Name of the World was really good. Both it and Jesus’ Son were each read in single afternoons. Not that it’s as amazing as Jesus’ Son but just that it isn’t one you put down for a week like Angels is. It’s built around a sort of cliche, (older lonely man has series of encounters with exciting wild younger woman) but is smartly handled and seems self-aware but that’s probably true of most of his books.

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  3. […] Will Patton’s reading perfectly matches the tone, pacing, and depth of Train Dreams. He understands the restraint of Johnson’s prose, never tripping over into bombast or ghastly over-emoting. Patton’s wry, not-quite-dusty, not-quite-dulcet tone brings Johnson’s small cast to vivid life. In particular, he breathes energy into the humorous dialogues. I found myself laughing aloud over a discourse between Grainier and a man who’s been shot by his own dog. Patton understands the material and brings the same sensitivity, pathos, and wit to it that he brought to his reading of Johnson’s 2007 opus, Tree of Smoke. […]

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  4. I disagree with Meyers on many things, for example I think Delillo is a genius, but he’s spot on about Tree of Smoke… it is truly awful. It has as much to do with the Vietnam War as Sylvester Stallone. I defy any literate person to read pages 326-327 (which I just opened at random) and not burst out in unintentional laughter. Here’s a tiny slice:
    “You know what a double veteran is? You fuck a woman and then you X her.”
    “Everybody here is double veterans.”
    “Yea?”
    “Here’s to every dead motherfucker.”

    Did you get it? These guys are crazy! They’ve got the thousand yard stare! They’re in The Nam!!! Paalease.

    Sorry, I don’t mean to be mean, I truly enjoy your site here, but this is just a baaaaad book. If you want to read a truly great Vietnam War novel— indeed just a truly great novel— read Meditations in Green by Stephen Wright.

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