Caffeinated and jittery, I’ve been on a ragged Denis Johnson high the last couple of months reading Tree of Smoke, his 2007 National Book Award-winning Vietnam War novel. There were moments early on when I wasn’t always convinced that it was the book I wanted it to be, having thoroughly enjoyed the unhinged quality of his 1997 novel about pre-Proposition 215 marijuana harvesting in California, Already Dead (memorably panned by Michiko Kakutani as an “inept, repugnant novel”). Tree of Smoke, said to have been ten years in the writing, is a more controlled work, its pacing methodical, its moments of madness born of deeper narrative immersion. (Kakutani was kinder; B.R. Myers was bent out of shape.) There’s a King Lear-like eye-gouging dead center in the middle of the book that’s breathtakingly brutal; ditto a sexual assault by U.S. soldiers of a Vietnamese woman, late in the novel, by which time we’ve come to appreciate the derangement of servicemen stretched beyond sanity by multiple tours of duty, one of Tree of Smoke’s many pointed parallels to our current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It’s not a flawless work. Johnson strains a bit trying to elevate the novel’s Colonel Sands—a WWII vet and instigator of a rogue psych-ops Vietnam mission code-named Tree of Smoke—into a kind of mythic Kurtz character. Heart of Darkness and, unavoidably, Apocalypse Now, hang rather heavy over the novel’s final section involving a journey deep into primordial jungles in search of a rumored Colonel Sands-in-hiding. In fairness, an argument could be made that allusions to Conrad and Coppola are as valid as Shakespeare’s leaning on Homer and Ovid for added metaphoric ballast. Johnson’s novel ultimately stands on its own as an impressive work, as ambitious and singular in its way as Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano or Paul Bowles’s The Sheltering Sky. It restores one’s faith in the literary novel much as Johnson’s masterful Jesus’ Son (1992) re-energized the American short story form.