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Tree of Smoke

Tree of Smoke
Denis Johnson
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Denis Johnson is back once again with the National Book Award winner, “Tree of Smoke”, a Vietnam War era tale of intrigue and espionage.

Although quantification of such a thing has me too near the subject to render it as absolute fact, Denis Johnson has been/is the greatest influence to me as a writer. Of course, there is “Jesus’ Son”, the wicked, sly, often mimicked book of short stories that exposes one man’s darkest moments in a succinct, shocking matter-of-factness. “Jesus’ Son” has lay on my nightstand, like a Bible since the day I first discovered its horrible beauty and awkward grace. It is a classic if not for its writing prowess, than for its terrible “inspiration” to which thousands of hacked out imitations have been provided us by writers of lesser talent and minimal passion. Going through his tomes, the seldom read “Name of the World”, in which, Johnson’s lyricism and poetry are played out in the grief of a widower, “Angels”, his first book and prose precursor to “Jesus’ Son” and “Already Dead” a wandering epic of insanity, sex and drugs. You can imagine my excitement when I saw this book in the window of Powells City of Books.

But then I began to read it.

Maybe Johnson has just set the bar too high for me, like a girl who does it all on the first date, there is just nothing left to prick my interest, oh, she has a sister? Ok, well, then… or maybe it was the material, the tired subject of CIA involvement in the Philippines and war era Vietnam. Johnson certainly hasn’t lost his talent or ability, but the raw, real and often unpleasant beauty in his crafted characters, sadly is missing from this book.

As I read a book, whether I plan on reviewing it or not, I dog ear pages where the beauty of a particular passage or quote strikes me. The pleasure is to take the author’s purest words and repeat them out of context at parties. As I began writing this, I flipped through “Tree of Smoke”, looking for a verbal petit four to whet our collective appetite, but there wasn’t a single cropped page in the entire book. I’ve read a lot of books where that was the case, just none of Denis Johnson’s.

“Tree of Smoke”, loosely based on “Warriors Who Ride the Wind”, the memoirs of William F.X. Band, is the shared story of Skip Sands, a CIA operative and Bill Houston, the main protagonist from “Angels”, before the events of “Angels” take place. Sands is a lonely G-Man, who joined the Agency because it seemed the natural thing to do. His father was a Pearl Harbor hero and his uncle, Colonel Sands, is a feared and revered man who runs a very small black budget psy-ops campaign for the Agency out of Manila and Saigon. Bill Houston, if you remember, is a Navy man on his way to a dishonorable discharge. He jumps ship in Hawaii and bums around, drinking with other soldiers who behave as if they just stepped out of “Apocalypse Now”, even though the war and in turn, the atrocities have yet to start. On one drinking binge, where blackouts are interlaced with pungent whorehouses, Bill is witness to a murder, the only real “action” he’ll ever see as a sailor. Eventually, once his money runs out, he turns himself back in to the Navy, who promptly expel him.

After his training at the Defense Language Institute in Monterrey, Skip joins his uncle’s small squad of mercenaries, soldiers and ops specialists who seem to have no country, rank or allegiance, only the Colonel, whom they follow like a god. The work, to Skip, seems pointless, he documents and catalogs intelligence and counter-intelligence, reported to him by his uncle and others. He engages in “patrols” where he leads local militia through the jungle hunting men that don’t exist. He is lonely, friendless and most of all, bored stiff. He clamors for a promotion, but stuck in a remote corner of the globe, it’s likely his superiors have forgotten all about him, until the Vietnam War breaks out. Oh, joy for Skip Sands.

For Bill, the Navy is just another speed bump he stumbled over, another twisted ankle of life that lays Bill up until the bottom is in sight. But the irony, not lost on Johnson, is that no one every lands at the bottom, they just keep falling through their next chapter, which happens to be a cement factory outside Phoenix, which affords him enough money for a room, beer and bus fare to and from work chipping out dried cement from the round mixers. When Bill was in the Navy all he could think about was getting back to Phoenix, once he gets back, all he can dream about is leaving, maybe to San Francisco, to anywhere, but the adage is the same, wherever you go, there you are and for Bill, that place really blows.

Johnson weaves in the social and political ideas and changes the Vietnam era was known for; Kennedy’s assassination, racial tensions and the rethinking of America’s values and its place in the world, but it’s all stuff we’ve heard before. The subject of Vietnam, is a dead one, tomes have been written about it for forty years and frankly, I find it hard to understand any more who or what could be added on to the history to breathe relevance back into the subject. In my opinion, the enormous literary real estate dedicated to the Vietnam War is just one of thousands of examples on how the Boomers hijacked our entire country and rewrote it’s history to portray them as much as possible. Fuck Boomers. Go and die already. Battle isn’t pretty, war is hell, the ultimate sacrifice will never feel worthwhile, but a lot of brave soldiers before and after these whiny Boomers did, and did it with style and grace, something a Boomer would know nothing about.

But holy crap! “Tree of Smoke” was a National Book Award winner! Wow, then the state of American Literature is beyond dire indeed. Ok, so now we see Boomers giving awards to other Boomers who make Boomers look good and keep them in the media. Excuse my while I go jerk off… that was what we were just discussing, wasn’t it?

Psst. Anybody got a Cialis?

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