Over the years I’ve become a bigger and bigger believer in trying to match your reading to season or circumstance. The setting of a novel and that of your own surroundings can have a bigger effect on a book’s success than you may think. So getting the chance to tackle Denis Johnson’s National Book Award winning Viet Nam novel Tree of Smoke amidst the isolation and surrounding wilderness of Cedar Mountain, North Carolina proved to be the perfect reading environment to absorb this rumbling giant of a book.
This is Johnson’s second masterpiece (Jesus’ Son being the first) and quite possibly the best thing he has or ever will write. I’m always hesitant to make this comparison but its scope and vision are reminiscent of my personal gold standard for modern fiction, Don DeLillo’s Underworld. There is the same lost America, the same shadow of historical events but everything is told from ground level, from within these incredibly personal stories of people in the midst of their lives only vaguely aware of the greater significance of it all. Johnson relies much less on the perfectly constructed sentences that make up the framework of DeLillo’s work and instead adopts an almost objective voice and a tremendous confidence that carry the book so swiftly that the rare moments of literary brilliance can sometimes flash by if you don’t slow yourself down enough to catch them. But the lasting impressions of the people, the places, the stories within stories remain vibrant and strong weeks after you’ve finished the last page and put it back on the shelf.
I found myself marveling again and again at how Johnson found his way so deep inside these characters – the private moments, details and inner thoughts that he weaves together to form this fractured narrative with such easy motion. The book seems to move on its own propelled by action that takes place largely in the present tense with the rare flashback used in relation to a letter or floating memory. I know that Johnson does exhaustive research and probably brought a good deal of personal history to this story. In fact I imagine he has been compiling this material over a long stretch of time, forcing himself to wait until he was in the proper frame of mind or period in his life before attempting to bring it all fully to life. It also seems as if he absorbed all the articles, books, films and theories related to Viet Nam and forced himself to work outside of them, artfully dodging cliché by putting his trust squarely inside the strength of his characters. There is a glaring exception in the form of his Kurtz-like Colonel but even here he draws the man with such skill, with such an original bend that he becomes something wholly of Johnson’s creation. This is also not to say that the big ideas are mising they’re just never stated explicitly. The paranoia, the misplaced patriotism, the bad decisions, the stark contrast of this exotic jungle against the Kansas model hometowns, the futility of religion in the midst of war, the untreatable damage done to the minds of these men – it’s all there without him ever having to tell you in terms as direct as these.
Jim Lewis writing for the New York Times said of the book, “Epiphanies occur in almost every book, but a credible apocalypse is much harder to find.” I couldn’t agree more. The book builds a formidable monster from the sum of its extraordinary parts, none stronger or weaker than the other and is able to create an understanding through the lasting impression it makes. A lesser writer might have given in to the temptation to spell it all out in grand language.
Tree of Smoke is an instant classic and a book I will gladly return to at some point in the future to try and catch the many subtleties that may have slipped past the first time around.