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Tree of Smoke: Denis Johnson’s Vietnam

Johnson has always been a writer fascinated with religion in its many guises. His characters — flawed, sinful, starved and drifting — are ravenous for moments of transcendence and clarity. Like the writers of the Bible itself, Johnson is masterful at crafting an atmosphere of profound mystery, pierced at times by blinding illumination. The novel’s title itself is taken from a passage in the Book of Joel: “And I will give portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and palm trees of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.” The description is horrifying as well as thrilling — awful in both senses of the word. This is the quality that Johnson strives for — I know of no writer better than him at holding heaven and hell in a single sentence.

As the Tet Offensive begins, a missionary widow listens from a distance: “A storm she thought. God with his big white thoughts... By dawn things had settled down. The cicadas started, and a slow sweet light saturated the atmosphere. A gibbon called down over the treetops. You’d think there wasn’t a gun in the world. A small rooster came and stood in the doorway, raised its beak, and crowed with its eyes closed. You’d think it was Peace on Earth.” While wandering the streets of Saigon, Skip sees a drunken man stopping a bus in the street: “Skip stood and watched: the bloody face, deformed by passion, shining in the bus’s headlights; the head back, the arms limp, as if the man hung by hooks in his armpits. This reeking desperate city. It filled him with joy.”

This is the brilliance of Johnson’s writing: He understands human suffering better than almost anyone, but he gropes behind the veil of tears to find the glory beyond. Some novels find their inspiration in psychology, some in sociology, some in philosophy — Johnson has always been a writer of “sacred” literary texts, books that tap into the infinitely recurring stories of humanity, stories like the sacrifice of Isaac or the stealing of Persephone by Hades.Tree of Smoke should be considered the literary bible of the Vietnam War — and perhaps the bible of war itself.

TREE OF SMOKE | By DENIS JOHNSON | FSG | 614 pages | $27 hardcover


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