Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson

In the large, frantic lobby they sat in rattan chairs under one of a multitude of whirling fans. Around them beggars and urchins crawled at the feet of exiles and campaigners — at last, a wartime capital, a posh lobby full of sagas, busy with spies and cheats, people cut loose and no longer accountable to their former selves. Deals struck in a half dozen languages, sinister rendezvous, false smiles, eyes measuring the chances. Psychos, wanderers, heroes. Lies, scars, masks, greedy schemes. This was what he wanted — not some villa in the bush.

Graham Greene leans like a Delphic shadow over the imagery-packed pages of Denis Johnson’s towering and mystifying new novel, Tree of Smoke, as it seems necessary for most any Vietnam-centric novel to be worth the paper it’s printed on. But Johnson is no obvious worshipper of the old master. He’s intent instead on creating his own hopped-up mix of jungle-rot, soiled idealism, and downbeat sewer talk. Greene is present over and around these pages, not in them, his Quiet American a reference point for all the Americans and Vietnamese who themselves are playing out the tragedy which that book so presciently outlined. The language, the characters, the hop-skip-and-a-jump narrative, the slightly sun-dazzled weight of it all is entirely Johnson’s.

Tree of Smoke is in part a saga about families at war. The Houston brothers, Bill and James, will feel familiar to those acolytes of Johnson’s slim drug-life masterpiece Jesus’ Son, with their self-destructive ways and hardscrabble Arizona upbringing. They don’t really have much impact on the story, such as it is. They drift through the military in a singularly unimpressive manner, doing more damage to their livers than the enemy, before ending up right back in the same ass-end of a hometown. Their lives don’t mean much and aren’t meant to, but in their purposeless spiraling-down, Johnson locates a blank poetry: “He didn’t forget his mother. His first few paychecks, he sent her half. After that he had nothing to send. He’d spent it all on riot.”

More to the point is CIA recruit William “Skip” Sands, a somewhat blank and affectless Kansas-raised kid. His family is for the most part straight Boston Irish, tough as nails and unflinchingly patriotic in the great postwar sense, particularly his uncle Francis a high-ranking Agency presence known primarily as the Colonel. A legend from Washington to the Philippines, (where the novel starts in 1963, with Skip on an obscure mission fighting the Huk insurgency on Luzon before shifting the action to Vietnam), the Colonel is a Kurtz-like figure who goes where he wants and does whatever the hell he pleases, all in the name of fighting the Commie scourge. Like some last relic of the Agency’s cowboy days, about whom one man says, “His enemies are only friends he hasn’t defeated yet,” the Colonel appears and disappears at will, dispensing gnomic wisdom and cynical bromides to Skip and all those who inevitably gather around.

Even the great freedom fighter gets morose when he is in his cups, which is often. In 1965, the book jumps ahead in loose stages, the Colonel informs Skip during one of their marathon discussions: “The Commies may be out of their minds, but they aren’t irrational. They believe in central command and in the unthinkable sacrifice … I’m afraid it makes the Communists uncontainable.” It’s a glimpse into the rotten structure behind all the bluster and action, and has no more affect on Skip than Greene’s book had on the Americans committing the same mistakes that he foretold.

This kind of talk embarrassed Sands. It had no credit with him. He’d found joy and seen the truth here in a jungle where the sacrifices had bled away the false faith and the center of command had rotted, where Communism had died. They’d wiped out the Huks here on Luzon, and eventually they’d wipe out every one of them, all the Communists on earth.

Skip may come off as the hot-blooded and cropped-hair idealist, but inside he’s quickly sliding down the same path of drunk with power degradation as the Colonel and the newer, leaner, and crueler Agency types who resent his power and obscure ways. The Colonel’s methods are a mystery to Skip, involving a powerfully odd set of intricately cross-referenced index cards that Skip meticulously keeps up for a mysterious purpose somewhere in the future. Meanwhile, as the war in Vietnam heats up and the CIA and military find themselves increasingly at a loss, Skip and his compatriots turn to more asymmetrical methods, Psy Ops, double and triple agents, and the like.

Other characters pass through in the smoky haze, a missionary lost in the bottomless need of Asia after her husband’s murder on Luzon, a German contract assassin unsure about his assignment, and a number of Vietnamese who get so tangled in espionage it’s quickly unclear who they’re working for. The quite mad Sgt. Storm, who loses his soul on blood-soaked forays into the jungle with a band of psychotic, scalp-taking GIs, pronounces, “We’re on the cutting edge of reality itself. Right where it turns into a dream.”

This is a novel drunk on the power of language, which is a critic’s way of saying that it’s self-indulgent, madly so. Johnson turns the throttle all the way up, churning through his plot with abandon and enjoying himself way too much to care about who or what gets left behind. It’s a big and encompassing kind of book that gets almost everything right about that particular misbegotten disaster, but never loses sight of its literary aspirations. This may be a Vietnam novel, and it is truly one of the greats, but it is still a novel, the kind where a woman can be described as: “She wasn’t, herself, beautiful. Her moments were beautiful.”

Tree of Smoke wends on and on like a snake through the muddied tributaries of a guerrilla war and international anti-Communist crusade. The sacrifices and moral compromises are always getting bigger, and the rewards infinitely smaller. It finally curls out and gasps to a stop in the cool and quiet Midwest of the early 1980’s where the missionary work continues, this time for Vietnamese refugees when the war is just a memory, hazy but hard to shake. The faint scent of disgust of a purposeless war seems inherited straight from Greene’s view of America’s tragic involvement in Southeast Asia, but the exuberant exhaustion is strictly Johnson.

RATING 8 / 10