Book reviews

Book review – ‘Tree of Smoke’ by Denis Johnson (2005)

In a word : extraordinary. It begins with news of the JFK assassination reaching troops in a Vietnamese jungle, and the horror of innocence lost which that moment so powerfully represents remains omnipresent throughout. Characters include young soldier Bill Houston (first seen shooting a monkey in one of the book’s most powerful scenes), his brother James, a Canadian nurse named Kathy, a young CIA operative called Skip and his shadowy uncle ‘The Colonel’.

To list their storylines would take a review much longer than this and even a comprehensive plot summary would tell you nothing of the book’s towering ambition, its compelling vision of the “loveliest country on earth” and how inexplicable it remains to the combatants even as they wreak havoc across it, its perfect tiny moments (“He didn’t like coffee. He just drank it”) and the glimpses of redemption it finds in the darkest depths of human suffering.

The only writers Johnson can be fairly compared to are all giants: Walt Whitman, Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene. Tree of Smoke is a very long book about a wretched war that has been the subject of countless novels and films. Yet it never feels like a chore, never seems familiar ground. In fact, you never want it to end.


Originally appeared in: Good Reading