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Tree of Smoke
By Shelley Masar (reviewer)
Tree of Smoke
by Denis Johnson
(Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2007)
The publisher's cover for "Tree of Smoke," a National Book Award Winner exclaims:
"There may never be a Vietnam War novel to end all Vietnam War novels, but this one comes about as close to a definitive fictional telling as you can get."
"'Tree of Smoke' is the story of William 'Skip' Sands, CIA, engaged in Psychological Operations against the Vietcong.... It is also the story of Houston brothers Bill and James who drift out of the Arizona desert and into a war where the line between disinformation and delusion has blurred away. It is destined to become one of the classic works of literature produced by that tragic and uncannily familiar war."
I'd never heard of Denis Johnson and never intended to read another Vietnam novel. But Johnson and "Tree of Smoke" are now mainline favorites. Denis Johnson died of liver cancer on May 24, 2017; I discovered him when a poet friend posted his obituary on Facebook. Something about his wide face caught my eye.
"Tree of Smoke" was the fourth of Johnson's books for me. All of his books and poetry center on the world of dispossessed people in the United States who live hard. Most of the characters in "Tree of Smoke" are young American men who "drift" into the war in Vietnam and come out decidedly worse off after their time as Lurps in Asia. Other major characters are older US military brass who came to Vietnam after careers in World War II. Johnson understands their anti-communist disinformation and delusion with insight he gained from a memoir, "Warriors Who Ride the Wind," by William F.X. Band (Castle Books, Inc., 1993).
But he also understands and writes about the women in the war. He respects and describes the despairing American mothers who live alone as widows and divorcees who turn to "polite" religion as their sons enlist against their wishes and return to restless lives and time in jail. He gets the Missionary women, nurses in the field, who lose their faith and face down their bitterness only out of a desire to save the children. He describes the relationships between the Lurps and whores in its banality, and in one case, a gang rape, brutality and indifferent cruelty.
Then there are the Asian characters, the businessman entrepreneur, pimp, tour guide, gun runner in a Malaysian village, the Madam bar owners, the personnel of roadside restaurant shacks. He gets the choices and survival strategies of Vietnamese operatives from all sides, including the "primitives" who didn't give a damn, and only wanted to be left alone.
Johnson is a poet, a gutsy Everyman with a painter's eyes and a good nose. He describes the jungles, the caves, the tunnels of the war, the rapes, the fish soup, the crappy beer, the cigarettes, the drugs, the insane cruelty, and the friendships. It's beautiful, and more often than not, funny, because the people involved are funny — gallows humor, irreverent cannon fodder humor.
The book begins in 1963 and ends in 1983. This is a summation from a letter written in 1983 by one of the protagonists who is about to be hanged in Malaysia for arms trafficking to a woman he met in 1965 when he was a vain CIA op and she a widowed nurse missionary. He is amused by the date, April Fools. April 1, 1983:
Once upon a time there was a war.
There was once a war in Asia that had among its tragedies the fact that it followed World War II a modern war that had somehow managed to retain or revive some of the glories and romances of earlier wars. This Asian war however flailed to give any romances outside of hellish myths.
Among the denizens to be twisted beyond recognition—even, or especially, beyond recognition by themselves, were a young Canadian widow and a young American man who alternately thought of himself as the Quiet American and the Ugly American, and who wished to be neither, who wanted instead to be the Wise American, or the Good American, but who eventually came to witness himself as the Real American and finally as simply the Fucking American."
"Tree of Smoke," like the war itself, is a tragedy. Shakespearian in its sub plots, one of which is the story of a pair of Vietnamese cousins one who goes with the Vietcong only to realize he loathes the re-training camps, the other cousin is a driver for an American Colonel, who betrays his cousin in return for a promise that his immediate family will be relocated when the Americans leave. The cousins' story includes those of their extended family. Both of the cousins have relationships with Americans characterized by affection and trust. One of the lessons of the book seems to be that anyone with a mind, Vietnamese or otherwise, ends up as a double agent, resigned to moral relativism. Again, from the letter:
"After I left Vietnam. I quit working for the giant-size criminals I served [CIA] when I knew. You started working for the medium size. Lousy hours and no fringe benefits, but the ethics are clearer. And the stakes are plain. You prosper until you're caught. Then you lose everything.
We're all the same bunch, but like I say from my end of the telescope [no longer a righteous anti-communist, just a common arms trafficker] the ethics are clearer. Or as x said to x, I have one ship and they call me a pirate. You have a fleet and they call you an Emperor. I can't remember who said it."
The story of Vietnam hasn't ended. In the words of another character, an infamous Colonel in CIA Psychological Operations, once a passionate anti-communist with the grit to have survived as a Japanese prisoner of war in World War II who goes AWOL and begins to preach a different message, a more universal one that applies to bureaucracies of all kinds:
"The lies go up [from people on the ground trying to survive by pleasing the guys in charge] and what comes back down is poor policy, mistaken policy. Stupid ideas get generated out along the designated paths, and way out here, in the field, our limbs start jerking in a crazy way. Then when so ordered we file a report that says with care and deliberation we thrashed around causing havoc. You know how it works, Skip. Mindanao. We swing from being tepid and ineffectual to being ardent and silly."
What's that line in Billie's song? "Them that's got shall get, Them that's not shall lose, So the Bible said and it still is news." Johnson gives the last word to a woman, the ex-missionary, now nurse, the woman who received the "Once there was a war" letter. She muses:
.".. the war hadn't been exclusively terrible. It had delivered a sense, at first dreadful, eventually intoxicating, that something wild, magical, stunning might come from the next moment, death itself might erupt from the fabric of this very breath, unmasked as a friend..."
Here at home as a student demonstrating against the war, I was infected with that wild dreadful sense that something profound was coming home. It has turned out to be a dream often deferred. A dream always up against retraction and reaction. My hat is off to Vietnam Veterans Against the War for your ongoing dream of, commitment to, resistance.
Shelley Washburne Masar is an artist, mother, grandmother who lives in Urbana, Illinois. She reads the Veteran cover to cover.