Reading Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke started me thinking about other American war novels. Off the top of my head, I don’t recall any high quality prose fiction concerning the American Revolution. There’s Rabble in Arms by Kenneth Roberts, and Howard Fast’s April Morning, But they don’t hold a candle to such works as Crane’s Civil War classic, The Red Badge of Courage. The First World War yielded All Quiet on the Western Front by Eric Maria Remarque. Okay, Remarque was not American, but this is my list, and Dalton Trumbo sure was, despite what the HUAC said, and Johnny Got His Gun definitely belongs in the catalogue. There’s A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls by you know who, Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, Heller’s Catch-22. Getting more modern, we have Going after Cacciato, et al by Tim O’Brien, who for my money pretty much owned the Vietnam War Novel franchise until Tree of Smoke. I don’t know of any great gulf war novels, and the Iraq story is too young to tell. Still, this is an impressive roster, and I’m sure I’ve left off some good ones. My point is that any writer who steps into this field is in trying to sit down at the table with some literary giants. With Tree of Smoke, Denis Johnson proves he belongs in the crowd.
I hate to join the movie promo marketeers who use the phrase “by the people who brought you. . .” to promote their latest blockbuster. However, I can’t help comparing Johnson’s characters and wit to Catch-22, aspects of the book’s setting and action to Heart of Darkness, (not a war novel, but since Coppola appropriated it for his Apocalypse Now film, it’s become part of the scene.), and his sardonic grimness to O’Brien’s. Johnson’s Vietnam is as absurd a place as Heller’s WWII, but it’s a lot more brutal and bloody. Some of his characters talk a lot about The Quiet American and The Ugly American as they try to figure out where they belong in the culture and military clashes that characterize the second half of the twentieth century, but they never do make real sense of anything despite some valiant efforts. Johnson sets them to exploring the world of illusion and reality on a high plane with passages from surrealist philosopher and playwright Antonin Artuad. He also uses the device of translation and babel-like miscommunication among the many tongues in a world that ranges from Arizona to the Phillipines, and throughout much of Southeast Asia. Who’s CIA and who’s not? Who’s VC? Who’s an agent? Who’s a double agent? Which information is real, which not? Who’s “authorized” to do what? Even who’s dead and who’s not?
Among all the other themes and threats in the world of Tree of Smoke are the VC tunnels, which need to be explored and mapped, but never quite are. They take on a metaphorical significance for the unknown nether regions of our souls and psyches which we know need attention but which we do everything we can to avoid, but which lurk on the horizon like incipient tornadoes. O’Brien treats this theme more completely in Cacciato, but the way Johnson uses these subterranean labyrinths as tantalizing monsters of the imagination is effective and organic to the structure of the work.
There is virtually no nobility in Johnson’s pages, none of Hemingway’s grace under pressure. The grunts we get to know best are redneck crooks in civilian as well as in military life. The war does not corrupt them, it simply provides a wider theater for their criminality. We find examples of the virtuous poor caught between contending forces, but even they have their own venality.
Looking ahead and back to Iraq, the book’s focus on the process of gathering and evaluating intelligence and “eliminating obstacles” (wrong-headed humans) in the name of democracy illuminates the difficulty of determining when and how humans and nations of humans decide how to act. We’re apparently no better at figuring the right way now than they were then, which is one of Johnson‘s points. And I believe he’s suggesting as well that we never will improve till we have a unity of purpose and the ability to figure out when to act and when to sit on the sidelines. He doesn’t give much of an idea about how to accomplish that insight (if, indeed, I’m correct about this being a main point) nor should he. This is not a political tract. It’s a novel with political content and implications.
Don’t like politics? Try religion, which has an important place in the novel as well. Three religions–Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam–whirl around one another. In the end, there’s a suggestion that salvation of some sort is possible. If I’m right about that, it will be a salvation purchased at great price, one brought about as much by accident as by will, and one that mixes the sordid with the holy to create a substance with no more permanence than the very tree of smoke the title describes.
This is a complex book, one that would reward many readings. It’s also a moving book that grabs you by the lapels and pulls you through the story as fast as you can go. It may be a bit of a “guy” book.
Female characters are few and generally conduct themselves with even less nobility than the males, though they have much better excuses. Except for one. And I think she’s the one who Johnson suggests might hold the key to redemption, if anyone does.
Let me know what you think.