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26 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Unquiet American
Were it not for the fact that this novel has just won America's National Book Award I would describe Denis Johnson as a vastly underrated writer. In this country certainly you would be hard pressed to find many who have read much of his output which includes fiction, poetry, plays and journalism. Which is a shame because he is well worth reading.

This vast...
Published on 26 Nov 2007 by William Rycroft

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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Disjointed Brain-dump or Multi-faceted Gem?
Tree of Smoke is a difficult read; there are many viewpoints, many different characters, that interact over many years and many messages layered inside prose and dialogue which at times is nearly impenetrable. There is no central plot, which makes it hard to sustain interest and nearly all the characters are unpleasant, which makes it difficult to care about the outcome...
Published on 11 Nov 2008 by Quicksilver


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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Disjointed Brain-dump or Multi-faceted Gem?, 11 Nov 2008
By 
Quicksilver (UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Tree of Smoke (Paperback)
Tree of Smoke is a difficult read; there are many viewpoints, many different characters, that interact over many years and many messages layered inside prose and dialogue which at times is nearly impenetrable. There is no central plot, which makes it hard to sustain interest and nearly all the characters are unpleasant, which makes it difficult to care about the outcome. I have to admit that I put this novel down several times, vowing never to return.

And yet I did.

Johnson's prose, although sometimes ponderous and circular, is more often, elegant and compelling. His masterful use of language renders the lack of story almost irrelevant; you end up reading on solely in search of the next breathtaking sentence. The novel's subject matter, style and construction, inevitably invite comparisons with Catch-22, the heights of which 'Tree of Smoke' never reaches, but it does contain some peerless war writing.

Many of the issues that Johnson tackles, despite being set in the Vietnam War, still resonate with current world events. The horrors and chaos of war are portrayed extremely well, as is the psychological toll on the combatants, the questionable suitability for combat, of those who volunteer to fight and society's inability to rehabilitate soldiers returning from conflict. The novel also looks at the fallibility of the intelligence services; how easy it is to find intelligence to support what you want to be true. If that wasn't enough, Catholicism and Religion also come under the lens of Johnson's microscope (The phrase 'Tree of Smoke', is taken from the bible.)

'Tree of Smoke' is weighty and thought-provoking stuff and it is very hard to sum up the novel in a review. Reading it from start to finish is a long, punishing journey but is not without its rewards. This may not be an exciting espionage novel, but Tree of Smoke's themes and above all it's vivid depictions of the chaos of war, will stick with me for a very long time.
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26 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Unquiet American, 26 Nov 2007
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This review is from: Tree of Smoke (Hardcover)
Were it not for the fact that this novel has just won America's National Book Award I would describe Denis Johnson as a vastly underrated writer. In this country certainly you would be hard pressed to find many who have read much of his output which includes fiction, poetry, plays and journalism. Which is a shame because he is well worth reading.

This vast novel (614 pages) contains huge themes, a cast list to rival any Shakespeare play and is no more or less than a War and Peace for the Vietnam era. I am not trying to make any grand claims for the book but it is almost impossible to read a novel this ambitious without seeing it in those terms. Coming 7 years after his last novel (the slim but equally fascinating The Name Of The World) and almost 35 years since the end of the Vietnam War, I was surprised to see such a tome, but there is nothing conventional about this book, it is a demanding read, it is flawed, but it is thrilling to see a writer of Johnson's talents tackling such an undertaking. Any attempt by me to summarise the plot or even just the characters will fail but here we go.

Beginning the day after the assassination of JFK, ('The dividing line between light and dark goes through the center of every heart. Every soul. There isn't one of us that isn't guilty of his death.') with a chapter for each year up until 1970 (with a coda in 1983) the plot revolves around William 'Skip' Sands, 'a young American man who alternately thought of himself as the Quiet American and the Ugly American, and who wished himself to be neither, who wanted instead to be the Wise American, or the Good American, but who eventually came to witness himself as the Real American and finally as simply the F**king American.' A CIA operative he starts in the Philippines and works in Vietnam eventually with his uncle, 'the Colonel', a Kurtz-like figure working in Psy-Ops. The Tree of Smoke of the title is 'the "guiding light" of a sincere goal for the function of intelligence- restoring intelligence gathering as the main function of intelligence operations, rather than to provide rationalizations for policy. Because if we don't, the next step is for career-minded power-mad cynical jaded bureaucrats to use intelligence to influence policy. The final step is to create fictions and serve them to our policy makers in order to control the direction of government' And for those British readers that may just remind you of a certain 'dodgy dossier'. For Americans we're into the realm of Rumsfeld's 'known unknowns'. The Colonel's eventual plan is to send false intelligence of a rogue American plot to bring the war to a swift conclusion with a tree of smoke in the form of a mushroom cloud.

But this is a multi-layered book and the real plot is that of war and how it affects all those who are involved in it. We have the Houston brothers James and Bill (who is the 'hero' of Johnson's debut novel Angels) and their Mother back home. Both of these boys becoming men in conflict and for James in particular the realisation that after all he has been through, he may not be suited to the ordinary life. We have various shadowy characters from the world of intelligence, Sergeant Jimmy Storm, Rick Voss, Anders Pitchfork, Dietrich Fest, the names alone should be making you want to read this novel. All of them operating in a region beyond the normal controls; 'We're on the cutting edge of reality itself. Right where it turns into a dream'.

As the moral centre of the book we have Kathy Jones who, recently widowed, meets Skip in the Philippines and they become lovers. When apart she writes him letters, telling him that when he reaches Vietnam he will find it like purgatory; 'Five or ten times a day you'll stop and ask yourself, When did I die? And why has God's punishment been so cruel?'. We also have several Vietnamese characters; Nguyen Minh who flies helicopters for the Colonel, his uncle Nguyen Hao who forms a relationship with the Americans and his close friend Trung, who attempts to assassinate the Colonel at the start of the novel, and will eventually become a double agent for the Colonel and the man to carry the false intelligence.

The novel's title has a biblical origin and with other references throughout, this is a book marked by religion. But this is a world forsaken by God or at least ruled by different administrations, one perhaps where he only exists as the desperate imagining of those who live in it. Loyalty, a recurring theme, leads many to think of Judas and Christ. We have a priest who has given up on prayer, a mother at home for whom 'prayer was all she had. Prayer and Nescafe and Salems'. The correspondence between Kathy and Skip is often struggling with faith. Vietnam itself is shown as a region of hell; a land and its people being destroyed by a nation trying to maintain faith.

What really stands out for me is the dialogue. It isn't there simply to forward plot but to brilliantly render character. From the idiomatic speech of the soldiers, the staccato phone conversations across continents, the vicious language of interrogation and conflict, Johnson's work recently as a playwright seems to have honed his already gifted ear for the speech of those at the margins, those living at the edge. He also has the ability to fill this violent novel with moments of real beauty and sadness.

Yes, it is flawed. But how could a novel like this not be. It is invigorating to read a writer dealing with such big topics and doing so fearlessly.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars a great book about Vietnam, 10 Oct 2008
By 
emma who reads a lot (London) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Tree of Smoke (Paperback)
I found "Tree of Smoke" utterly compelling. The devil is in the detail, or so they say, and the details of life during the Vietnam War are precisely set down in this long, melancholy book. The smells and sights of the country, both in the countryside and the cities, are vividly brought to life. Denis Johnson is also absolutely amazing at writing dialogue, you can hear the characters conversing in your head, and everything rang terribly true to me, the sometimes inane chats people had, the sometimes illuminating things people think.

However, if you are looking for a book with a strong, strong plot, this isn't it. The "Tree of Smoke" is a proposed secret CIA mission but in some ways the whole thing could be seen as a giant shaggy dog story. There is a also huge cast of characters to deal with (I heard from one bookseller that one customer had made a sort of time chart of them all to keep track) but they are all so different, so individual, that I didn't lose my place even though I stopped for 6 weeks in the middle of the book.

I truly believe that one day this book'll be regarded as a classic. It has tinges of Graham Greene and Conrad, with its preoccupation with how Vietnamese, Americans, Canadians, English and French interact in this strange setting or war. It also provides an extraordinary commentary on current imperial adventures, though I believe Johnson started writing the book many years ago.

Johnson's characters are often loners, alcoholics, people with griefs behind them, and this book is no exception, but lovers of excess may fall, like I did, for the wonderful "Colonel" who is a charismatic CIA leader with a nutty past... The pleasure of reading Johnson is just being there, watching it all go by. If you are the kind of person who could love to spend an afternoon in a café watching life drift by, this book's for you. If you want tight plotting, you might want to look elsewhere.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars War and Peace., 2 Dec 2009
By 
Jan Dierckx (Belgium, Turnhout) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Tree of Smoke (Paperback)
This book has a few things in common with 'War and Peace' by Tolstoy. Just like Napoleon in Moscow, American soldiers - tired of the war - had to leave Saigon. Just like Tolstoy who described Russian society, Denis Johnson gives a panoramic view of both South and North Vietnam. 'Tree of Smoke' takes several moments of the vietnam conflict with different characters mostly unrelated to each other (there are exceptions). This technique allows to get an overview and a kaleidoscopic image of Vietnam.

Very few encounters with the Vietcong are described (so don't expect a run-of-the-mill war novel). The characters of this book work behind the scenes. They are Americans, Vietnamese, French, British, and Chinese. They rank from messenger boys to CIA officials and generals.

There are three characters who are the common thread through this novel. William "Skip" Sands, CIA, engaged in Psychological Operations and the disaster that befalls him. There is also the story of the Houston Brothers, Bill and James, young men who drift out of the Arizona desert and into the war where the line between disinformation and delusion has blurred away. In its vision of human folly, this is a story like nothing in American literature.

This novel is a very rich and powerful portrait of Vietnam and the people who were trying to make the best of their lives.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent albeit perhaps flawed, 14 Sep 2008
This review is from: Tree of Smoke (Hardcover)
I really enjoyed this lengthy novel, an epic operating over many layers, twenty-odd years and a lengthy cast of characters. In many respects, Johnson deals in a thought-provoking manner with some very lofty themes - loyalty, truth, family, love, friendship, and trust - and the characters populating the novel reflect typical human frailties, weaknesses and traits. Set into the context of the Vietnam war and counter-intelligence, many of these features are heightened and perhaps taken to a caricatued level, and in that regard I was struck by some of the apparent influences on Johnson from other artistic media, particularly film. For example, the myth (if it is) of Colonel Francis Sands going outside the norms of command and heading off into the jungle across the Thai border - is that not deeply resonant of Colonel Kurtz in "Apocalypse Now" (or Conrad's "Heart of Darkness"). Equally, I was reminded of the parallels with a real life ex-military maverick serving in Vietnam, John Paul Vann, as recounted in Neil Sheehan's Pulitzer-winning "A Bright Shining Lie". Similarly, the brutality of the treatment of innocent Vietnamese civilians reminds the reader of "Platoon", or Michael Herr's "Dispatches". I could go on, and I'm not being negative about any of these parallels; it perhaps just suggests the eclectic nature of Johnson's influences and reading/viewing. I would certainly encourage those interested in the Vietnamese war, and the human condition, to read this book and reflect on its themes. I've only two minor complaints: one, Johnson's technical checking isn't fully up to speed, as he refers to an F-16 airstrike happening in 1965, when the aircraft wasn't introduced by the USAF until 1974; and two, there is too much unresolved with some of the characters, to the extent that the plot becomes secondary to the themes, leaving the reader wondering what happened to some of the key people like the two Houston brothers. Minor quibbles. Go, buy, enjoy.
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7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Too literary for my taste, 21 Feb 2008
By 
Mr. Warren M. Fisher (East Grinstead, West Sussex United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Tree of Smoke (Hardcover)
I was drawn to this novel because of the billed subject matter (CIA and Vietnam), but was ultimately disappointed by the erratic plotting and occassionally high-literary style. The war and the Company involvement are merely background to his sprawling cast (all involve Vietnam, only a few CIA), and he loses interest in both setting and characters - many of the cast die off-stage and are only mentioned in passing, and Johnson's indifference to the war in Indo-China is obvious when he abandons the war in 1970 (3 years before the US troop puillouts and 5 years before the fall of Saigon) to shoot forward to 1983 to deal with the fates of a handful of his cast.

If you want to read a great book about CIA and Vietnam check out the crazed genius of James Ellroy's COLD SIX THOUSAND. Maybe TREE OF SMOKE is just too literary for my blood. Don't get me wrong, this is more readable than most high-literary fiction, and I did return to this book again and again (it was a long read) with varying degrees of enthusiasm. So I'll have to chalk this up as a missed opportunity and although readbable a deeply flawed effort.
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5.0 out of 5 stars cultural puzzle, 1 May 2013
By 
Nikolaos Oikonomidis (Thessaloniki Greece) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Tree of Smoke (Paperback)
I couldn't imagine that I could find so many things in a book about the Vietnam war.Denis Johnson is a master in storytelling;he costructs his story as a puzzle of characters, changing views from time to time, as we follow different people in their thinking and action, creating not a linear story but a landscape in which we witness the torturing of the human soul in the struggle for survival, with all possible meanings of the word.I also had an insight in the kind of feeling the Vietnam war created to the participants that no movie had given me so far;it made me interested and involved.A great book, certainly a revelation to me.Better than Catch 22;it's not funny like that was, but holds a stronger character overall.
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4.0 out of 5 stars The Definitive Vietnam Novel?, 7 Sep 2009
By 
Eileen Shaw "Kokoschka's_cat" (Leeds, England) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Tree of Smoke (Paperback)
Why has nobody ever written a novel of note about Vietnam? Could it be because there is no way to simplify the details of a war which America lost? No way, especially after the Mai Lai massacre, to romanticise it into a moral victory if not an actual one? Men who served in Vietnam came home to a country that was divided along `peace' or `war' lines. The climate of opinion turned against Kissinger's war of attrition that set targets for body-counts, without specifying whether these were combatants, or merely men, women and children. Consequently, the men who fought in Vietnam had only a story of shame to tell and perhaps it is understandable that no one wanted to tell it.

Another reason might be, perhaps, because the film-makers got there before the writers? Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, Platoon, did these films say it all? Now Denis Johnson has written the definitive Vietnam novel by which all others will be judged.

It is far from a perfect novel - written in episodes following a large number of characters, it is not something I found myself able to read straight through. This is not to say that it is not engaging. In some sections it is chiefly that the complexity of these people's stories does not make for gripping plots. Johnson's ambition for this book is evident in his refusal to make this a story about the North or South Vietnamese, a story about soldiers, or missionaries, or a story about nurses, or whores, or religious differences, or the CIA, or the people back home in the good old U.S of A. Instead it is all of these stories, interwoven, cut into sections, made mythic, made comic or touching, made shockingly raw, or made into a tree of smoke (a wonderful term that signals the ineffable, ungraspable contradictions of this new kind of warfare, not as recognisable as a mushroom cloud, if similar in shape).

Not, then, an easy book to read, but very often gripping, heart-breaking, sometimes shocking, puzzling or even annoying, but always tremendously affecting, intriguing and ultimately tragic.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent, 30 Dec 2007
This review is from: Tree of Smoke (Hardcover)
The 2007 National Book Award winner, Tree of Smoke is an epic of the vietnam war era. It follows the lives of two brothers, an officer and his nephew, and other interesting characters and some of the family they leave behind when they go to war. We meet the vietcong also, and get a glimpse of how this war affected theier familys as our won civil war affected ours. It is a very strong novel which captures that time in our history brilliantly. The title of the novel comes from the code name for a counter-pschycological operation which forms one of the main parts of the book. Never boring, very insightful as the characters in the novel are finely drawn, I think this is easily one of the best novels published this year! I'd also recommend reading Tino Georgiou's bestselling novel--The Fates--if you haven't yet
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars very enjoyable read, 6 Jan 2008
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S. Miller (London) - See all my reviews
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I bought this having read very good reviews in the newspapers. I wasn't disappointed. It is beautifully written in such a clear way that despite its bulk it is easy to read. I've just ordered two more by the same author.
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Tree of Smoke
Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson (Paperback - 1 Aug 2008)
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