It’s Deja Vu All Over Again: TREE OF SMOKE by Denis Johnson, a Review (of sorts)

As I sit and watch the surreal press conference between Trump and Putin after their so-called historic summit, where, after recently treating our allies like dog shit, Trump behaves like a sycophantic lapdog to a murderous dictator who wants nothing more than to destroy and subjugate the U.S. of America in retribution for how the U.S. of America destroyed and subjugated his beloved U.S.S.R., I am reminded of how I felt, or better yet, how my fuzzy, nightmarish memories leave me feeling from the surreal and tumultuous times in the U.S. of America during the late-Sixties through the mid-Seventies, you know, the era of national madness beginning with the Tet Offensive through the Watergate break-ins and subsequent hearings to Nixon’s humiliating yet palliative resignation and ending with America’s humiliating yet palliative retreat from South Vietnam.

Being born in 1965, I was just a lad during those crazy American years so my memories of it all are in fact, like many childhood memories are, fuzzy, nightmarish, and haunting; however, these nightmarish and haunting memories of mine are informed greatly and enhanced by all the many nightmarish and haunting books I’ve read and documentaries I’ve watched about the era.

In short, I’m pretty much fascinated by those nightmarish and haunting times.

The good news is that we, we being the citizens of the U.S. of America, survived all that madness, just like we survived the madness of other nightmarish and haunting times in our nation’s past — i.e. (or e.g., take your pick) The Civil War.

So, I try to keep all that spooky history in perspective when suffering through the nightmarish and haunting times of our present-day madness.


Anyway, because I am so fascinated by the madness of the Vietnam War Era, I was happy to come upon Denis Johnson’s fascinatingly mad and, at 724 pages, massively epic novel Tree of Smoke, the 2007 National Book Award winner for fiction.

When reading Tree of Smoke, it feels to me almost as if I was in fact suffering within one of my nightmarish and haunting memories of the Vietnam War. It is a fluid yet layered and convoluted story that has to it a Kafkaesque vibe (one of the highest honors I can bestow upon a book) that rivals any of Kafka’s own works, and this being said from one of Kafka’s biggest fanboys.

The monstrous tome takes us from the dense dark jungles of the Philippines, to the hellish battlefields of Vietnam, to the steaming hot oil fields of Texas, to the sanitized city of Minneapolis, and beyond.

The main story is of Skip Sands, a clean cut, patriotic (at least at the beginning of the novel) spy in training who is looking to follow in the footsteps of his uncle, a legendary OSS spy known as The Colonel who, through sheer force of will and oversized reputation, is able to run his own intelligence and counter-intelligence operations during the war without any oversight from the CIA or the military. Sands, as an indication of who he wants to be, not necessarily who he is, idealistically sees himself as the mysterious Pyle in Graham Greene’s The Quiet American.

If Sands sees himself as Pyle, then I see The Colonel as the illusive and mad ivory trader Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s masterpiece The Heart of Darkness; or, perhaps more fittingly, as the illusive and mad Colonel Kurtz in Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece Apocalypse Now.

There are side stories that are equally mesmerizing in their efforts to inform us…

There are the troubled Houston brothers who show us what it may have been like for the countless impoverished American male youths who at the time felt they had no options in life other than to volunteer to fight in a war they had absolutely no comprehension as to why it was being waged to begin with, and in the end become just as disillusioned with the war as Sands becomes with his uncle.

And there is the anti-love story between Sands and the tragic Canadian nurse Kathy Jones, as well the story about Trung the Vietnamese spy who is the impetus behind the Colonel’s indefatigable drive, among other stories interlaced throughout the novel.

Because Tree of Smoke is an award-winning novel, there are many important reviews written about it, nearly all unanimous in their praise. My favorite review is from the great and now retired Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times.

The only negative review of any significance I could find of Tree of Smoke was written by B.R. Meyers of The Atlantic. And my oh my Meyers really tears the book apart in a very cogent and convincing manner.

While it’s nice to know that I can now safely enjoy the madness of the Vietnam War, Watergate, etc. from afar through such epic books like Johnson’s Tree of Smoke, I can only hope that soon the mad Trumpian times of today will soon be just as happily behind us (and in a fittingly Nixonian manner, of course), left only to be enjoyed as haunting, nightmarish memories long into the future by today’s youth as I now enjoy the madness of the U.S. of America’s often tragic and tormented past.


2 thoughts on “It’s Deja Vu All Over Again: TREE OF SMOKE by Denis Johnson, a Review (of sorts)”

  1. Denis Johnson is one of my favorite writers and I had the pleasure of hanging out with him at a Santa Monica writing conference during the early 90’s. I was sad to hear of his passing this last year. Truly a great writer! RIP Denis, you crazy fucker!


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