Sunday, July 26, 2009

Vietnam, receding in the rear-view mirror: "Tree of Smoke" (2007)

(Bellemeade Books is on a summer break during July. For the next few Sundays, there will be reviews of fiction from the archives: think of it as suggestions for lazy vacation reading. The following review was originally posted September 21, 2008).

There's a black Mercedes rollin' through the combat zone
Your servants are half dead you're down to the bone

Tell me, tall man, where would you like to be overthrown
Maybe down in Jerusalem or Argentina

Beat a path of retreat up them spiral staircases
Pass the tree of smoke, pass the angel with four faces
Begging God for mercy and weepin' in unholy places

(Bob Dylan, 1981

When it was published in 2007, Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke was acclaimed as one of the year's most ambitious novels. It made many ten-best lists, and earned Mr. Johnson the cache of having written an "important" novel about the Vietnam War. He has some heady company in writing about the watershed event of the 1960s, but at this remove from the events of 1963-1970 (the span of time covered in Tree of Smoke) Vietnam is less a place of combat than a canvas to spread his cast of characters. Reviewers and many readers were dazzled by the novel's hallucinogenic tone ("whacked-out" was another positive accolade) in which plot is secondary to the effect of the author's spiraling prose.

The novel is big, convoluted, and meant to be consumed whole in a long read, immersing the reader in the reflections of a fun-house mirror, the military's disintegrating role in Vietnam. There's a flood of imagery, an exhausting descriptive style that one appreciates or soon is overwhelmed by (the language can be almost Biblical, and often rhetorical). In its 600 pages are characters that, true to the times, seem to be aimless, or at least helpless in the way of unfolding disaster. The potent confusion is striking, but the impact somehow diminishes as the book rolls on:

"Skip stepped from perhaps the evening's eleventh tavern and ended his first day in Vietnam walking away from Thi Sach with only a general idea where he lived, amid the swarming throng, through the gritty diesel smoke, past the breath of bars and their throbbing interiors -- what songs? He couldn't tell. There -- a recent hit stateside -- "When a Man Loves a Woman" -- then the music twisted around on itself as he passed the anonymous doorway and it might have been anything. He bartered with a cyclo driver who took him accross the river and dropped him on Chi Long Street. Here, among the quieter lanes he breathed the fumes of blossoms and rot, smoldering charcoal, frying food, and heard the distant roar of jets and the drumming of helicopter gunships, and even the thousand-pound bombs exploding thirty kilometers away, not so much a sound as an intestinal fact -- it was there, he felt it, it thudded in his soul."

Johnson is good at evoking mood, but the thicket of his words eventually becomes an obstacle to the tale's telling. Though the novel is marked in chronological order by year, it's only a panoramic framing device allowing the book's characters to spin wildly throughout, so that a plot description of Tree of Smoke becomes moot. It's simpler, as in many a Dylan song, to describe characters than the thread of a plot: there's a novice C.I.A. operative, his unhinged uncle, two brothers who survive Vietnam and return to Arizona, an intelligence officer named Storm, and a Canadian Seventh-Day Adventist aid worker whose grief and sadness provide a coda to the war's insanity. None of them provides an emotional center to the action, or gives the reader much to care about.

As the plot lurches about, the novel loses its way. The intent is to convey the undeniably chaotic forces at work in this unwinnable war; every man must find reasons for his survival, or work toward his redemption. Some find nothing but the heart of darkness. But survival or redemption requires a moral certainty, and here there is none. The characters only become more obscured in their jungle hell, and the Vietnam war oddly recedes from view as the novel progresses. The war remains central to the action, but as a refraction of the country's moral dilemma, not in the direct way more war-era contemporary novels and essays conveyed so well. For a novel with so much technical detail, which is considerable, Johnson manages to make Vietnam into a Hollywood abstraction.

Robert Stone's Dog Soldiers (1974) and Michael Herr's Dispatches (1977), perhaps because of their relative timeliness, still read like fresh reports from the front. By the end of Tree of Smoke, the Vietnam experience is a story told from a distance -- fragments of an era that have been rearranged for an entertainment, rather than an experience. It's the somewhat worn, twice-told aura that Johnson achieves that ultimately makes the book a frustrating disappointment. Without any narrative center, there's not much to hope for after all of Johnson's pyrotechnics, and the book ends, wearily, with a postscript dated 1983. Perhaps it's just the march of time, maybe the Iraq experience has supplanted Vietnam in the American conscience, or that we as a country have never been much interested in our failures. We like to believe that we can still be winners, after all; it's the American way.

"Everything he looked at was suddenly and inexplicably smothered by a particular, irrelevant memory, a moment he'd experienced many years ago, driving with his fellow undergraduates from Louisville to Bloomington after a weekend holiday, his hands on the wheel, three in the morning, headlights opening up fifty yards of amber silence in the darkness. The heater blowing, the boozy odor of young men in a closed car. His friends had slept and he'd driven the car while music came over the radio, and the star-spangled American night, absolutely infinite, surrounded the world."

Such certainty and directness of writing is rare in the novel, and the story could use more of it. Much has been written about the book's echoes of Graham Greene in The Quiet American, his tale of Vietnam during the French colonial period of the 1950s, and the character of Skip Sands does share some of the optimistic idealism of that novel's Alden Pyle. Both men have their dreams turn dark as their idealism fades. But this is just one aspect of Tree of Smoke. Greene's story revealed itself in its British reserve; Johnson's novel is overstuffed with meaning, and spins with centrifugal force, filled with characters we have a hard time knowing.

Tree of Smoke has its admirers, and won the National Book Award for 2007. A big topic, a big book: reviewers and readers have given Johnson a large pass for this, but many of them may mistake the book's sheer weight for seriousness. Through the smoke and confusion we learn little about war or the human condition we don't already know, and of Vietnam even less.

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