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Tree of Smoke, or Smoke and Mirrors?

After having read Tree of Smoke (2007) by Denis Johnson, I find myself much less impressed than New York Times writers Jim Lewis and Michiko Kakutani, but rather thankful to have found B. R. Myers’ review entitled “A Bright Shining Lie”.  Myers, too, struggled with the reviews by Lewis and Kakutani praising the book as “a tremendous book” (Lewis) and “wildly ambitious” (Kakutani).

National Book Award Winner, Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, Insulting Waste of Time

Though perhaps Tree of Smoke was “wildly ambitious”, it was an ambition that fell flat.  In fact, I can’t hear the phrase “ambitious” in relation to a novel without becoming instantly skeptical.  Perhaps this is due to good ole Writing From a Global Perspective with prof. Lizzie Skurnick freshman year.  We were talking about sexism in the literary world, or something (before you shoot me down for bad memory, this is a specific discussion we had as a class on one day for less than an hour and a half over a year ago), and I remember talking about how critics will use a word like ‘ambitious’ to describe a novel that’s 1)not as good as it could be, 2)not as good as it should be but, 3)written by a male author, and therefore deserving attention.  Tree of Smoke is a novel that rides entirely on Johnson’s reputation and ‘ambition’. In reality, the most ambition I found in Tree of Smoke was an attempt to use as much vulgarity and have as many whores as possible in a 700 page book.

In fact, despite the inelegance of the prose that, according to Lewis, “roll[s] like billiard balls with weird English on them,” and despite the lacking plot (lack of plot?) that Kakutani admits “has never been one of [Johnson’s] strengths,” the most disappointing aspect of Tree of Smoke is its characters.

The main characters, each one of them flat at best, include the Houston brothers (one army, one navy) who both return from the Vietnam War and become petty thieves, ‘Skip’ Sands and his uncle ‘the colonel’, a mustachio’d novice and an expert CIA Agent, and Hao and Trung, one South and one North Vietnamese men who work with/against/with/against(?) the colonel/the US government as double agents.  There are plenty of other male characters who are mere characterizations (to the point where one racially stereotyped soldier goes by “Black Man” instead of his name), but even with a fierce name like Jimmy Storm, none of these characters deliver an authentic conflict or an authentic human being.  They’re like cartoon characters–exaggerations of people.

Worst of the male exaggerations is the colonel, the Irish-American Bostonian WWII veteran who escaped Japanese prison camp and joined the CIA to become one of the most respected and feared agent working in Southeast Asia.  He even gets his own private army unit and helicopter for a while on the sheer authority of his willpower.  The colonel, “latter-day version of Kurtz in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness.'” (Kakutani) has the power and the hubris and the mistrust of his superiors to be interesting.  His heavy-drinking, cigar-smoking, Hawaiian-shirt-wearing (did I imagine the Hawaiian shirts, or was that in there?) person, however, felt like, to take a page from Holden Caulfield, a complete phony.  He was neither sympathetic nor did he infuriate me.  His actions felt ridiculous and unrealistic.  His dialogue was merely a platform to espouse philosophical and religious points uninterrupted.  What should have been the most interesting character in the book left me feeling like I’d been duped.  It was like I had been promised the President of the United States and given the president of the school board’s fraternal twin.  Because so much of the book hinges on Skip’s relationship to the colonel and the colonel’s entitlement mentality, so much of the book is lost in Johnson’s failure to deliver an actual character.

Even worse is the sexist, flat, and often crude portrayal of women.  There are two women in Tree of Smoke, a situation that my friend Frank Gaspar (in relation to the women in the film The Lovebirds) described as “Madonna/Whore”.  Either the woman is a portrait of holiness, or she is a prostitute and only used for sex.  We see Skip’s mother, a widow and single mother of failing health who clings fanatically to Jesus and the Bible as the only truth and hope.  We see Bill and James Houston’s mother, an abandoned woman and single mother of failing morale who clings fanatically to Jesus and the Bible as the only truth and hope.  Both mothers proselytize and admonish their sons to pray and seek guidance from Jesus, but all Skip and the Houston brothers see is a wasted and deranged woman that they will avoid at any cost, even if that means choosing Vietnam over going home.  Sometimes we see Kim, Hao’s wife and childless, of failing health and constantly seeking magical or herbal remedies to cure her.  She is Hao’s inspiration more than she’s his wife, and only used to steer Hao in the moral direction.  We see prostitutes–dozens of prostitutes–who smile at you from across the bar or come to you smiling from the arm of your hotel manager, who come up to you in places like the Floor Show and the Purple Bar to ask you if you want the eponymous floor show (a “so horny, so horny” naked but for red heels woman named Virgin smoking a cigarette with her vagina) or a “bo-jup” (Johnson, 232, 238).  With the exception of the mothers, Kim, skip’s servant in Cao Phuc, and the women at the event in the last twenty pages of the book, all women are sexual objects.

Even Kathy.  Kathy Jones, the missionary’s widow and aide worker who struggles with Calvanism as if it is “spiritual pornography like a dog to its vomit.” (Myers uses this quote in his review, and I remember reading the line, but I can’t for the life of me find the page reference).  Kathy, on the outside, is the same Madonna character as Skip’s mother and the Houstons’ mother, then she has an affair with Skip.  From then on in the book, she plays the Madonna in her letters to Skip and in the two or three scenes in which she is alone, and she plays the whore every time she is with Skip.  At the end, Skip writes her a letter in which he tells her he loved her, but their relationship is entirely based on the fact that when they are together, they have sex.  A doubling of Kathy is James’ girlfriend Stevie who’ll “let him go all the way” (158), but is ridiculously devoted to him.  James looks on Stevie with contempt and bitterness, using her only for sex.  Her character is nothing more than high school naivety, and James can’t stand her.  Skip treats Kathy the same way.  Of all the female characters in the book, Kathy Jones has the opportunity to be more than stock, but even she is a sexual object.

All of the reviews I read were written by men; I’m interested in knowing what other women think of this book and if they found it as degrading as I did.  I cannot believe that a woman will enjoy this book.  None of the characters, regardless of gender, have depth or humanity, but at least the male characters have the dignity of being characterizations.  The overriding message that I got at the end of this book was that, as a woman, I had to be either completely gung-ho religious (a negative) and alone or a completely satisfied, smiling  and uncomplaining sexual object for the man men in my life.

I guess I can see why some men like this book.  There are lots of weapons and action.  There are spies and double agents.  There are soldiers and wars.  If you’re looking for a way to kill three weeks of spare time and you’re interested in shooting, killing, and f***ing like there’s no tomorrow, then go for it.  Sure.  But if you really want to read a good book about the Vietnam war, read something by Tim O’Brien instead.  You’ll save yourself the time.


4 thoughts on “Tree of Smoke, or Smoke and Mirrors?

  1. Pingback: Sweet, Smoky Liberation « Maggie Felisberto's Blog

  2. I love how someone whose never been to Vietnam is telling men which book to read. The point of the book was to reveal the naked truth that the Government refuses to reveal. War is not wrapped in a pretty bow, acceptable for the history channel.

    • What’s funny about this is that I wrote that blog post so long ago that in the mean time, I’ve finished two different college degrees and gotten over halfway through a third, and I also got to know Denis personally in 2014. I’m positive that if I had the time to reread Tree of Smoke, I would feel differently about it. At the time, however, I had just recently read If I Die in a Combat Zone by Tim O’Brien, and I remember feeling the stark divide between the two narratives. I don’t remember enough about either book to engage in a discussion on them. I do remember Denis being shocked that I had even read Tree of Smoke because it’s so long. He actually said, “I haven’t even read that book” to me when I confessed to him that I had disliked it.

      Denis was a great man, and I’m so glad I got the chance to meet him and get to know him during my MFA and then through the Disquiet program in Lisbon. He as a person really changed my approach to writing and my relationship with the craft. Have you read his last book, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden? It’s absolutely stunning. If you like his writing and you haven’t checked it out yet, you really should. I went to a launch party for it several months ago. Love it or hate it, one of the things that makes Denis’s writing so good is that it creates such a visceral reaction in his readers. I’m still so upset about his passing last year. It’s strange to think that the outright hatred I felt for Tree of Smoke as an undergraduate student who knew basically nothing about anything would open the door to someone so special that I’ve come to revere so much.

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