Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson

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The 150-word Review: Denis Johnson’s “Tree of Smoke” manages to evoke almost every literary and cultural trope related to the Vietnam War and still remain unique. It is a confounding novel that pokes you with occasional sections of purplish prose, only to follow them with flashes of clarity and power.

In many ways, “Tree of Smoke” is a reflection of the present, where reality has grown increasingly fragmented and vague. It shifts between several of points-of-view, through characters who, for the most part, seem to tread along the peripheries of the war. Johnson’s characters rarely experience suffering first hand but serve as witnesses to the tragedy and perversion occurring around them. They never confront their pain directly; instead we can palpably sense their pain through their denial, resignation, and self-destructiveness. And they neither seek nor offer any truths about their experiences. Perhaps the elusive Tree of Smoke is the illusion of “truth” itself.

Having this book on your shelf will impress: Michael Cimino, Francis Ford Coppola, Oliver Stone, MIchael Herr (and maybe Stanley Kubrick), the National Book Foundation, Psy Ops specialists, fans of “Jesus’ Son,” Michiko Kakutani, and B.R. Myers of the Atlantic Monthly.

This book will go great with: Bushmills and Lucky Lager

Set the mood with: Nineteen by Paul Hardcastle

Clavinism (stuff that will not make you look cool in a bar): Actually Norm, Denis Johnson was not present to accept the National Book Award for “Tree of Smoke,” due to the fact that he was on assignment in Iraq at the time.


The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

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The 150-word Review: There’s this scene in “Apocalypse Now.” Nineteen-year-old, “Mr. Clean” (Laurence Fishburn), lies dying on the deck of a swift boat. His comrades-in-arms are looking down upon him. They look directly into the camera and we see them through his eyes. The sun repeatedly peeks from behind their heads, stars flare in the camera’s lens, reminding us that we are watching a film, that none of what we are seeing is true. Yet all of it is true. We feel it. We are dying.

Tim O’Brien’s novel, “The Things They Carried,” is this scene. In the chapter, “How to Tell a True War Story,” O’Brien writes, “that in a true war story nothing is ever absolutely true.” “The Things They Carried” is filled with unflinching stories of intense terror and madness, beauty and sorrow. Throughout, O’Brien reminds us that it is a work of fiction, but all of it is true.

You would like this book if you’re a fan of: metafiction, “true” war stories, reflexivity, gallows humor, gritty hyperrealism, generalizations, catharsis.

This book would go great with: “P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wristwatches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters, matches, sewing kits, Military Payment Certificates, C rations, and two or three canteens of water.” Some of the things they carried. (or this).

Clavinism (stuff that will not make you look cool in a bar): Interesting fact Norm, the story “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong” was made into a film in 1998, entitled, “A Soldier’s Sweetheart,” starring Kiefer Sutherland.

Reading this book would impress: Francis Ford Coppola, post-modernists, and (I would imagine) anyone who has truly experienced war.

The Quiet American by Graham Greene

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The 150-word Review: Whenever I read Graham Greene, I quickly find myself muttering, “THIS is how I want to write.” Greene writes with a crisp economy, steadfastly pressing the plot forward. Greene’s novel, “The Quiet American,” set in Saigon during the last days of the First Indochina War, is my favorite example of Greene’s excellence.

Alden Pyle, the title character in this story, is a green CIA operative, an earnest and misguided idealist, who befriends the story’s narrator, Thomas Fowler, a cynical British reporter. Fowler describes Alden Pyle by saying, “I’ve never met a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused.” When Pyle successfully challenges Fowler for the love of his callow mistress, Phoung, and his local meddling causes disastrous consequences, Fowler is reluctantly forced to take part in the events around him. The ironic punch line of Greene’s novel is “the only quiet American is a dead American.”

You’d like this book if you’re a fan of: expatriate literature, rationalizing jealously or envy, covert operations, subtlety and irony, applying literature to current events for perspective, crisp prose.

This book would go great with: bàhn mí, a vermouth cassis, or a pipe of opium

Clavinism (stuff that will not make you look cool in a bar): Interesting fact Norm… Michael Caine was nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award for his 2005 performance as Thomas Fowler in a film adaptation of “The Quiet American,” starring opposite Brendan Frasier as Alden Pyle.

(Terrific casting. If there was any American I’d like to see “quieted,” it’s Brendan Frasier. However, I did like “Encino Man.” OK. He can live.)

Reading this book would impress: neoconservatives, the editors of “Let’s Go! Saigon,” Rudyard Kipling, Anthony Burgess.