Farrar, Straus and Giroux
On sale September 4
I kept thinking of two books while reading Denis Johnson’s Vietnam War novel Tree of Smoke. One was Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. The other was Johnson’s own Jesus’ Son, a series of connected stories in which the use of short scenes rather than a complex narrative serves to mirror the confusion caused by the protagonist’s drug addiction.
Tree of Smoke never strikes a balance between the fragmented point of view of Jesus’ Son and the multiple points of view of Catch-22. Smoke follows a number of characters (CIA men, Vietnamese spies, veterans) from the death of JFK (who dies in the first sentence), to the 80s, when Reagan’s election held some measure of renewed optimism for a country scarred by Watergate, recession and the lingering social divide of Vietnam. For the first third of the book, until the threads intertwine, Johnson develops each storyline in stand-alone scenes that don’t go far on their own and don’t gel with the others to create a compelling narrative. It’s like a gas motor that craps out just when it seems like it’s going to turn over.
Between the false starts and the stalling, the book could’ve been 100 pages shorter without losing anything. Much of the material is superfluous: extended descriptions of how the characters take their coffee, a character mentioning a book he’s reading but not elaborating, making other characters wonder why he brought it up (interestingly, the reader wonders the same about Johnson). It’s fine for realism, but Johnson’s attention to minutiae does the novel’s pacing no favors.
That said, his attention to the mundane does a convincing job of depicting day-to-day life in a guerilla war zone. The street hookers and G.I. bars so familiar from other Vietnam stories are given weight and depth here.
Johnson’s writing is as engaging as always, and as the threads of the story intertwine, the novel gains some compelling momentum. The final scenes are nothing short of masterful. But attempting to address the big, messy issue of war while simultaneously focusing on any and every unnecessary detail, Johnson sacrifices what might otherwise be a truly compelling narrative.