If you have ever wondered what it feels like to die by poisonous blow-dart, Denis Johnson provides a useful description in his new novel, Tree Of Smoke:
"Something stung the padre in the flesh over his Adam's apple and seemed to lodge there. He reached up to brush it away. His tongue and lips began to tingle, his eyes burned, and within seconds the sensation was that of having no head at all, and then of losing touch with his hands and feet, and abruptly he didn't know where any part of him was, every part of him seemed to go away. He did not feel himself collapsing toward the water, and by the time he landed in it he was dead."
This scene takes place early in the story, in a plotline that wouldn't be out of place in a Graham Greene novel. A young CIA agent named Skip Sands, burning with idealistic fervor, has been sent deep into the jungles of the Philippines. His assignment: to contact and befriend a Catholic missionary suspected of running guns to Marxist "elements." Impressed by the man's character, Sands becomes convinced the suspicions are unfounded. But the odd-behaving German "tourist" in his hotel, the one with the collapsible blow-dart, has his own assignment ...
The Philippines episode is merely a prelude to the novel's more massive "theater of operations," the Vietnam War (covered between the years 1963 and 1970). Deposited outside Saigon to map Vietcong tunnels, Sands soon realizes that is merely cover for more insidious assignments to come. Soon he is enmeshed in a shadowy, enigmatic arm of the CIA -- code name "Tree of Smoke" -- where he will be party to plots and counterplots, acts of deception and sabotage. By the end of the war, Sands bears little resemblance to the fresh young pup out to crush Communism.
Tree Of Smoke is a massive novel, encompassing a multitude of characters, plotlines, settings and themes. It is approximately six times the length of Johnson's most celebrated work, the thematically related collection of tales Jesus' Son. Published in 1992, that slim but devastating book sealed Johnson's literary reputation forever; unfairly, everything he has written since has been judged against it. The story of a peripatetic "loser" who answers to the name "Fuckface," Jesus' Son revealed uncanny insight into the slavery of addiction -- addiction to love, addiction to loss, addiction to heroin. (Through the beauty and cadence of his language, Johnson basically reinvented an all-too familiar tale that I thought had run its course with authors such as Burroughs and Bukowski: Let's call it The Junkie Novel.)
I approached Tree Of Smoke with a mixture of doubt and trepidation. War stories today tend to take place in broiling deserts, not dark jungles. Hadn't I learned (or absorbed) all there is to already know about 'Nam via Hollywood movies and fiction? And given the off-kilter, surreal quality of Johnson's writing, would Tree Of Smoke be realistic, or would its vision of war resemble what one soldier in the book describes as "Disneyland on acid"? I was fine with either approach, but I needed to know -- was I getting Apocalypse Now or Hamburger Hill?
As it turns out, Johnson has written a novel more grounded in reality -- less phantasmagoric, less weird -- than his previous books. With a specificity of detail, he conveys a tactile sense of Vietnam the country, immersing us in its sights, smells and customs. He also presents nuanced, complex characters that are transformed, emboldened or ruined by the cauldron of war.
The men and women that populate this novel (Americans and Vietnamese) cover a wide, diverse spectrum: soldiers, commanders, missionaries, spies, peasants, mothers, murderers, pimps, priests. Obviously, they are too many to describe individually; however, it should be noted that a pattern emerges in which the ones actually fighting the war (or directly suffering its fallout) and the ones running the war form two distinct groups. These groups, or "binary strands," move through the lengthy tale in parallel proximity -- on the few occasions in which they bisect (as in a late-night encounter in a canteen when a lonely grunt drunkenly offers himself to a CIA operative as an assassin-in-training), ominous consequences ensue.
Tree Of Smoke is set primarily in wartime, so the constant presence (and threat) of death informs almost every scene. Johnson's combat scenes, in particular, bring to mind the more hallucinatory aspects of the movies that have come to define, for many, this conflict (and yes, they're more Apocalypse Now than Hamburger Hill).
Read, for example, this description of one major character's (a callow 19 year old from Arizona named James Houston) initial foray into battle. It appears approximately midway through the novel, in a section on the Tet Offensive titled "1968":
"The dark was thick enough to drink and streaked with the afterimages of tracers and muzzle-flash. Over the valleys flares hung by their flickering tails of smoke, detached from them, and drifted down, and as James moved forward he could see his feet in a smoky half-light. As long as he moved forward nothing could kill him. Each moment came like the panel of a comic book, and he fit perfectly inside each panel. Air strikes lighting up the night, flares swaying in the heavens, and black shadows dodging all around him."
As presented by Johnson, Vietnam is simultaneously remote and relevant to our current times. In the last half-decade, America has been swept along in a conflict that, for its many differences from Southeast Asia, is grimly similar. While there are no rice paddies or jungles in Iraq, the terrain is just as deadly, and the enemy as determined to destroy (or outlast) the invading force.
At one point in the novel, two Vietnamese characters -- their lives disrupted by the skullduggery of CIA spooks -- engage in weary, resigned banter about their country's fate:
"There's an old saying: the anvil outlasts the hammer."
"Which one are we? We're neither one. We get smashed between."
"And another: every cock fights best on his own dunghill."