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Home » Books » Fiction & Literature » Espionage

Tree of Smoke

By Denis Johnson

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Format: Paperback, 624 pages
Published In: United Kingdom, 01 August 2008
Tree of Smoke - the name given to a `psy op' that might or might not be hypothetical and might or might not be officially sanctioned - is Denis Johnson's most gripping, visionary and ambitious work to date. Set in south-east Asia and the US, and spanning two decades, it ostensibly tells the story of Skip Sands, a CIA spy who may or may not be engaged in psychological operations against the Viet Cong -- but also takes the reader on a surreal yet vivid journey, dipping in and out of characters' lives to reveal fundamental truths at the heart of the human condition. `A Catch-22 for our times' Alan Warner, Books of the Year, Observer 'The God I want to believe in has a voice and a sense of humour like Denis Johnson's' Jonathan Franzen `An epic of drenched sensuality and absurdly chewable dialogue, as though Don DeLillo and Joseph Heller had collaborated on a Vietnam war novel' Steven Poole, Books of the Year, New Statesman

About the Author

Denis Johnson is the author of several novels, including Already Dead (published by Picador), Resuscitation of a Hanged Man, Fiskadoro, The Stars at Noon, Angels and The Name of the World, plus a collection of short stories, Jesus' Son, and four volumes of poetry. He lives in northern Idaho.

Reviews

If this novel, Johnson's first in nearly a decade, is-as the promo copy says-about Skip Sands, it's also about his uncle, a legendary CIA operative; Kathy Jones, a widowed, saintly Canadian nurse; Trung, a North Vietnamese spy; and the Houston brothers, Bill and James, misguided GIs who haunt the story's periphery. And it's also about Sgt. Jimmy Storm, whose existence seems to be one long vision quest. As with all of Johnson's work-the stories in Jesus' Son, novels like Resuscitation of a Hanged Man and Fiskadoro-the real point is the possibility of grace in a world of total mystery and inexplicable suffering. In Johnson's honest world, no one story dominates. For all the story lines, the structure couldn't be simpler: each year, from 1963 (the book opens in the Philippines: "Last night at 3:00 a.m. President Kennedy had been killed") to 1970, gets its own part, followed by a coda set in 1983. Readers familiar with the Vietnam War will recognize its arc-the Tet offensive (65 harrowing pages here); the deaths of Martin Luther King and RFK; the fall of Saigon, swift and seemingly foreordained. Skip is a CIA recruit working under his uncle, Francis X. Sands, known as the Colonel. Skip is mostly in the dark, awaiting direction, living under an alias and falling in love with Kathy while the Colonel deals in double agents, Bushmills whiskey and folk history. He's a soldier-scholar pursuing theories of how to purify an information stream; he bloviates in gusts of sincerity and blasphemy, all of it charming. A large cast of characters, some colorful, some vaguely chalked, surround this triad, and if Tree of Smoke has a flaw, it is that some characters are virtually indistinguishable. Given the covert nature of much of the goings-on, perhaps it is necessary that characters become blurred. "We're on the cutting edge of reality itself," says Storm. "Right where it turns into a dream." Is this our last Vietnam novel? One has to wonder. What serious writer, after tuning in to Johnson's terrifying, dissonant opera, can return with a fresh ear? The work of many past chroniclers- Graham Greene, Tim O'Brien, the filmmakers Coppola, Cimino and Kubrick, all of whom have contributed to our cultural "understanding" of the war-is both evoked and consumed in the fiery heat of Johnson's story. In the novel's coda, Storm, a war cliché now way gone and deep in the Malaysian jungle near Thailand, attends preparations for a village's sacrificial bonfire (consisting of personal items smashed and axed by their owners) and offers himself as "compensation, baby." When the book ends, in a heartbreaking soliloquy from Kathy (fittingly, a Canadian) on the occasion of a war orphan benefit in a Minneapolis Radisson, you feel that America's Vietnam experience has been brought to a closure that's as good as we'll ever get. Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.

One of the 2007 National Book Award fiction nominees (winners were announced November 14) is Denis Johnson for Tree of Smoke (Farrar. 2007. ISBN 978-0-374-27912-7. $27). Tracing the years from 1963 until 1970 and following the progress of a mix of characters, Johnson grapples with the Vietnam War. Col. Francis Sands, a legendary World War II figure, is now in Southeast Asia setting up an operation. His nephew Skip Sands is drawn into the heart of the op and into a moral morass. Providing the pivot point is Kathy, a Canadian nurse. Floating on the edges of the story and often stepping into the fray are a host of other unforgettable individuals. Johnson, who is also a poet, manages both the narrative threads and the history with a deft hand, creating a new way to read about the war. Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.

"Denis Johnson is a true American artist, and "Tree of Smoke "is a tremendous book.""--The New York Times Book Review ""The God I want to believe in has a voice and a sense of humor like Denis Johnson's."--Jonathan Franzen"" "I can't be sure that there's been a better American novel published in the past ten years. It is a masterpiece."--"The Miami Herald ""It will . . . get inside your head like the war it is describing--mystifying, horrifying, mesmerizing. [Johnson] has written a book that by the end wraps around you as tightly as a snake."--"The Washington Post Book World """Tree of Smoke" is a masterpiece of language and depth."--"San Francisco Chronicle ""Johnson has captured the zeitgeist of American experience as surely as Twain, Hemingway, or Ellison."--"New York Post" "Opens a window onto a world of mystery, war, and intrigue whose importance in the (usually) unwritten history of our republic can't be denied."--"Chicago Tribune"" """Johnson has written his "War and Peace,""--"Harper's Magazine""

EAN: 9780330449212
ISBN: 0330449214
Publisher: Picador
Dimensions: 19.8 x 13.1 x 3.8 centimetres (0.42 kg)
Age Range: 15+ years
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