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.
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.