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Book Reviews

Book Review: Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson

Notable Awards:

2007 National Book Award Winner for Fiction

New York Times 10 Best Books of the Year

Named a Best Book of the Year by Time, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, Amazon.com, Salon, Slate, The National Book Critics Circle, The Christian Science Monitor

Memorable Quote:

“War is ninety percent myth anyway, isn’t it? In order to prosecute our own wars we raise them to the level of human sacrifice, don’t we, and we constantly invoke our God. It’s got to be about something bigger than dying, or we’d all turn deserter.” – pg. 54


There is a lot to be said about a book of this length (614 pages) and magnitude, but I’ll start by mentioning that this is not a novel to read for 20 minutes each night before bed. It is at times abstract, at times convoluted, sometimes even a bit trite, and yet it manages to produce an emotional attachment that can feel almost burdensome.

The book features several characters of different backgrounds and their experiences from 1963-1983, but the main plot line revolves around CIA officer Skip Sands and his involvement in the Vietnam War. The various character threads often intertwine, though several remain mostly independent throughout the novel. As the story progresses, tension arises not only between characters, but also between characters and the reader as ethical, emotional, and ideological dilemmas begin to drive the action.

The novel is engrossing in an uncomfortable way. In the beginning, the vivid details and ultra-realistic characters genuinely caused me to question whether or not the book is really fiction. It just seemed unbelievable that an author could depict such incidents without actually having observed them occur. The amount of research required to execute such writing must have been extraordinary, but the subtleties of particular character quirks and vastly unique perspectives described in the novel are really what make the book a masterpiece.

Archetypes be damned, Johnson develops even seemingly minor characters in ways that defy traditional story-telling. Each character, from Colonel Sands to the chauffer Hao, is a presentation of the human condition in a new form, and none can be classified by the classical dichotomy of good and evil. Nor are they used as mouthpieces for Johnson’s historic perspective of the Vietnam War. Instead their thoughts and behaviors express the complexity of a situation that no one is in a position to fully comprehend. This is, perhaps, one of the more frustrating aspects of the novel: there are no answers. In keeping with Tim O’Brien’s How to Tell a True War Story, it often seems that “there is not even a point.” There are, however, exceptional moments throughout the book when the author exposes elements of Truth that are quite disarming. They will stay with you long after you put the book down, even when you can’t quite discern their full meaning.

Toward the end, the novel becomes increasingly allegorical, and frankly, I was relieved to reach the conclusion. The ending is not surprising. Each plotline and each character run their natural course. By the final 75 pages, nothing is unpredictable. I read on out of a desire to complete the journey alongside characters that I could not agree with but also could not despise. It is a poignant tension that lingers beyond the final page.

As a writer, I feel compelled to recommend this book. Johnson’s mastery of language and storytelling is astounding. I intend to reread this book as a mentor text (once I’ve fully recovered). As a reader, I still recommend Tree of Smoke based on its literary merit, though I warn that it requires a certain degree of resilience to get through. Not every reader will find it equally compelling, and I think that your personal worldview will be a larger factor in determining this book’s appeal than for most novels you read.

You can pick up a copy for less than $20 on Amazon.com, and even if you never make it all the way through the novel, it will still look great on your bookshelf 😉

About Paul Rotter

Paul Rotter was born in Southeastern Pennsylvania. He earned a B.A. in English from the University of Central Florida where he was a Finalist for Outstanding Literary Nonfiction Writer. He currently writes for an Investor Relations firm in Maitland, FL. You can follow him on twitter @pmrotter


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