In the early 1960s, naïve CIA recruit Skip Sands is eager to prove himself to his uncle and hero, Colonel Francis Sands. Initially excited about joining his uncle’s unit in the Philippine jungle, Skip soon finds himself fending off boredom as the years unwind and his Kurtz-like uncle becomes more and more unglued. Tree of Smoke’s unconventional plot also tracks the war’s devastating effects on Bill and James Houston, soldier brothers from Phoenix; two Vietnamese military men on opposite sides of the conflict; and widowed Canadian aid worker Kathy Jones, who ends up in a wartime liaison with Skip. The novel binds these disparate characters together through the mayhem of war and a universal, if often fruitless, search for salvation.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 614 pages. $27. ISBN: 0374279128
Minneapolis Star Tribune
"[Tree of Smoke is] ambitious and perfectly executed, a vivid and continuous dream, and nothing short of a masterpiece. … The point of Tree of Smoke, which ends on an almost hymnal note, is that the possibility for salvation, even if denied, is there." Ethan Rutherford
Cleveland Plain Dealer
"Denis Johnson … pays homage to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Graham Greene’s The Quiet American. His superb, disorienting book winds up not just equaling them, but bettering everything written about Vietnam save the most sublime passages of Tim O’Brien and Michael Herr." John Repp
NY Times Book Review
"Denis Johnson is a true American artist, and Tree of Smoke is a tremendous book, a strange entertainment, very long but very fast, a great whirly ride that starts out sad and gets sadder and sadder, loops unpredictably out and around, and then lurches down so suddenly at the very end that it will make your stomach flop." Jim Lewis
"Everything in Tree of Smoke is there for a reason, even when it feels desultory and too passionately involved with its own meanderings. … But there are also moments of riveting intrigue, particularly a scene involving an exquisitely depicted German assassin." Gail Caldwell
New York Times
"What’s amazing is that Johnson somehow manages to take these derivative elements and turn them into something highly original—and potent. … He has written a flawed but deeply resonant novel that is bound to become one of the classic works of literature produced by that tragic and uncannily familiar war." Michiko Kakutani
"The immensely talented Johnson … delivers a beautifully layered, insightful and visceral montage of stories that examines the Vietnam War experience from multiple points of view. … One gets the sense that everyone in the long, colorful cast of characters in Tree of Smoke is on a Danteesque excursion through a hell of misguided intentions." Tyrone Beason
Los Angeles Times
"[As] Tree of Smoke progresses, it gets too diffuse, too sprawling, until we ourselves grow disconnected, detached, lost. … It never brings us close enough to believe that these characters matter, that there is something fundamental—lives, souls, the question of deliverance—at stake." David L. Ulin
"Massive," "epic," and "wildly ambitious" are the most common adjectives applied to Idaho poet and novelist Denis Johnson’s latest work. While the cranky Los Angeles Times asks, "Why write about Vietnam at this point in history? Is there anything else that needs to be said?" the majority of critics love how Tree of Smoke brings fresh life to the tired setting by uniting it with unconventional plot and character choices. As the Minneapolis Star Tribune summed up, "Sound like you’ve read it before? Trust me, you haven’t." Johnson brings his well-known penchant for eccentric characters and his spot-on ear for dialogue (both best displayed in 1992’s Jesus’ Son) to his riskiest—and, many say, his most rewarding—work to date.
Cited by the Critics
Dispatches | Michael Herr (1977): Lauded as one of the best books about the Vietnam War, Dispatches portrays the author’s own experiences in Vietnam as a wartime correspondent for Esquire and describes soldiers’ surreal, nearly hallucinatory fighting.