A layered, extremely dense story spanning two decades (1963-1983) charting America’s participation in South East Asian affairs (mainly Vietnam), this National Book Award winner from Denis Johnson can test your patience at times, but if offers a brutal and deeply researched insight into the war against the Vietcong and its aftermath for a few individuals caught in and around its throes.
The primary thread of the novel focused on Skip Sands, a young American drafted into the war effort by his uncle, the almost mythical Kurtz like figure, Colonel Sands. Skip revers his uncle and gets pulled into the Psy Ops he is involved in. This is a group which involves in psychological warfare against the enemy, and his uncle has some outlandish plans to make it work. But is it all legal? Or even real? Are there any psy ops in the works really? This term gives rise to the name of the novel, Tree of Smoke. Skip gets mired in the banality of the war soon enough, and ends up in an on and off affair with the wife of a Seventh Day Adventist missionary, Kathy, after her husband is kidnapped and feared killed. Kathy finds herself gravitating deeper into the humanitarian mess and orphan crisis that the war leaves in its wake and becomes a number version of herself with each passing year.
Another thread takes up the story of the Houston brothers. In fact, it opens up detailing a passing encounter Bill Houston has with the colonel in 1963. It later focuses on his younger brother, James Houston and his descent into the madness of the violence war perpetrates both on others and himself. The Houston’s story emphasizes the plight of the drifting small town boys without much hope in their circumstances in life and who sign up for the army at the first chance. Once they are removed from service, or retired, life back home descends into lawlessness and penury.
There are other characters too; including one who towards the final portions imagines himself as some kind of a tribal God, and a Vietnamese couple who try to stay on the side which will keep them safe. A parallel story has a German hitman, who pops up in some interesting junctures in the story. Connecting most of these though, is the Colonel, and his near mythical backstory and deeds. But will history and the war finally catch up to him and to the others in his ambit, as it always seems inevitable?
It’s a fascinating premise for sure. The writing is unique and conveys the haphazard mood of the setting very well. But it does need patience. The book clocks in at over 600 pages, and for the first 200 or so, it is a chore at times to get through. But if you do manage to reach that point, the rest of the story is intriguing enough to hook you and keep you there. The tale does sometimes read as its title – i.e a constant psychological play on the reader’s mind on what is real and what is not. Characters are well etched out, though they are not easy to empathize with and results in a loss of connect with the reader.
It’s definitely worthwhile to stick this one out though. However, it’s probably meant for the patient reader – definitely not a quick and easy read.