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Once upon a time there was a war . . . and a young American who thought of himself as the Quiet American and the Ugly American, and who wished to be neither, who wanted instead to be the Wise American, or the Good American, but who eventually came to witness himself as the Real American and finally as simply the Fucking American. That's me.

This is the story of Skip Sands--spy-in-training, engaged in Psychological Operations against the Vietcong--and the disasters that befall him thanks to his famous uncle, a war hero known in intelligence circles simply as the Colonel. This is also the story of the Houston brothers, Bill and James, young men who drift out of the Arizona desert into a war in which the line between disinformation and delusion has blurred away. In its vision of human folly, and its gritty, sympathetic portraits of men and women desperate for an end to their loneliness, whether in sex or death or by the grace of God, this is a story like nothing in our literature.
Tree of Smoke is Denis Johnson's first full-length novel in nine years, and his most gripping, beautiful, and powerful work to date.
Tree of Smoke is the 2007 National Book Award Winner for Fiction.

Published: Macmillan Publishers on Sep 4, 2007
ISBN: 9780374708405
List price: $9.99
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As the book opens, it is 1963, the day after JFK has been assassinated. Tree of Smoke follows the Vietnam war years through 1970, and then there's an add-on that happens in 1983, long after the war is over. The major character focus is William "Skip" Sands, a CIA PsyOps agent recruited by his uncle Colonel Frances Xavier Sands. At the outset, Skip views himself as a patriot, working on behalf of his country, but as the war winds on, he becomes ultimately disillusioned, eventually admitting that he "alternatively thought of himself as the Quiet American and the Ugly American, and who wished to be neither, who wanted instead to be the Wise American or the Good American, but who eventually came to witness himself as the Real American and finally as simply the F*ing American" (603). Skip joined his uncle’s coterie of groupies who follow the Colonel blindly. On index cards, he documents and catalogs information given to him by his uncle, but while he was in Vietnam, desperately wanting to put his training to work, he was kept out of the way at a dead physician's villa, where he "felt himself captured in a rainbow bubble of irrelevance." Skip realizes that he'd "come to war to see abstractions become realities. Instead he'd seen the reverse. Everything was abstract now." Hence the title: "Tree of Smoke" --the sense of obtuseness surrounding the Vietnam War for the characters in this novel, who all seem to work within different and changing frameworks of reality and deception. As the war continues, Skip unravels, finally giving up "working for the giant-size criminals," and going to work for "the medium size. Lousy hours and no fringe benefits, but the ethics are clearer." And it's not just Skip who breaks...the subplots are based on other characters who have to deal with how the war has affected their psyches and continues to do so after the war is over.An amazing book...it's going to be tough for me to top this one this year in my reading travels. I very highly recommend it. After reading this, I got the sensation that Johnson's portrayal of his characters caught up in the Vietnam War had them all stuck in some sort of cosmic PsyOps operation - in which, as one character notes, "we're on the cutting edge of reality itself. Right where it turns into a dream "(255). Simply outstanding. I can't praise it enough!read more
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This is a novel set during the Vietnam War and focuses on the operations of the CIA in that theater. Main characters are Colonel Francis Sands and his nephew Skip and the Houston brothers, Bill Jr. and James. The Sands work for the CIA and are attempting to find a Viet Cong double agent. The Houston brothers join up with the military because there aren't any better options for them and both are profoundly affected by their military service. I would have to preferred to hear more about the Houstons and less about the Sands. This book would have been 20 pages shorter if the "f" word was omitted. Another in a long string of books that I didn't love. It was well outside my usual taste.read more
Is this review helpful? Yes | NoThank you for your feedback.
The New York Times ends their review with the following statement about Dennis Johnson: "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."I like the juxtaposition of “flawed but deeply resonant” to describe this novel. This is quite a book, well written, illusive, thoughtful-- a modern Catch 22 but with less humor. The main character, Skip Sands was the new version of Kurtz in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. A good hearted, fatherless midwestern, Skip Sands joins the CIA to be under the mentorship of his dynamic, bigger than life Uncle, Colonel Sands. As Skip moves from the menial tasks first assigned ( cataloging names) to the more dangerous assignments ( helping a double agent), he is excited by the whole scenario – suffice it to say he changes a lot. Another part of the novel details two brothers from Arizona who also are affected by their experience, and the novel does a great job of detailing how hard it is for them to move past that experience. There is also Kathy, who works with the orphanages and who at times loves Skip, but her life too will go through the disillusionment of this existence. She reflects: they have “worshipped their own lies, spat on their own dreams, turned their backs on their true beliefs”By telling the interspersed stories of several characters, Johnson depicts a thoughtful portrait of the Vietnam War. The disillusionment, the gritty reality, the loss of morals --many themes explored in language that is both a challenge and a pleasure to discover.read more
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As the book opens, it is 1963, the day after JFK has been assassinated. Tree of Smoke follows the Vietnam war years through 1970, and then there's an add-on that happens in 1983, long after the war is over. The major character focus is William "Skip" Sands, a CIA PsyOps agent recruited by his uncle Colonel Frances Xavier Sands. At the outset, Skip views himself as a patriot, working on behalf of his country, but as the war winds on, he becomes ultimately disillusioned, eventually admitting that he "alternatively thought of himself as the Quiet American and the Ugly American, and who wished to be neither, who wanted instead to be the Wise American or the Good American, but who eventually came to witness himself as the Real American and finally as simply the F*ing American" (603). Skip joined his uncle’s coterie of groupies who follow the Colonel blindly. On index cards, he documents and catalogs information given to him by his uncle, but while he was in Vietnam, desperately wanting to put his training to work, he was kept out of the way at a dead physician's villa, where he "felt himself captured in a rainbow bubble of irrelevance." Skip realizes that he'd "come to war to see abstractions become realities. Instead he'd seen the reverse. Everything was abstract now." Hence the title: "Tree of Smoke" --the sense of obtuseness surrounding the Vietnam War for the characters in this novel, who all seem to work within different and changing frameworks of reality and deception. As the war continues, Skip unravels, finally giving up "working for the giant-size criminals," and going to work for "the medium size. Lousy hours and no fringe benefits, but the ethics are clearer." And it's not just Skip who breaks...the subplots are based on other characters who have to deal with how the war has affected their psyches and continues to do so after the war is over.An amazing book...it's going to be tough for me to top this one this year in my reading travels. I very highly recommend it. After reading this, I got the sensation that Johnson's portrayal of his characters caught up in the Vietnam War had them all stuck in some sort of cosmic PsyOps operation - in which, as one character notes, "we're on the cutting edge of reality itself. Right where it turns into a dream "(255). Simply outstanding. I can't praise it enough!
Is this review helpful? Yes | NoThank you for your feedback.
This is a novel set during the Vietnam War and focuses on the operations of the CIA in that theater. Main characters are Colonel Francis Sands and his nephew Skip and the Houston brothers, Bill Jr. and James. The Sands work for the CIA and are attempting to find a Viet Cong double agent. The Houston brothers join up with the military because there aren't any better options for them and both are profoundly affected by their military service. I would have to preferred to hear more about the Houstons and less about the Sands. This book would have been 20 pages shorter if the "f" word was omitted. Another in a long string of books that I didn't love. It was well outside my usual taste.
Is this review helpful? Yes | NoThank you for your feedback.
The New York Times ends their review with the following statement about Dennis Johnson: "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."I like the juxtaposition of “flawed but deeply resonant” to describe this novel. This is quite a book, well written, illusive, thoughtful-- a modern Catch 22 but with less humor. The main character, Skip Sands was the new version of Kurtz in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. A good hearted, fatherless midwestern, Skip Sands joins the CIA to be under the mentorship of his dynamic, bigger than life Uncle, Colonel Sands. As Skip moves from the menial tasks first assigned ( cataloging names) to the more dangerous assignments ( helping a double agent), he is excited by the whole scenario – suffice it to say he changes a lot. Another part of the novel details two brothers from Arizona who also are affected by their experience, and the novel does a great job of detailing how hard it is for them to move past that experience. There is also Kathy, who works with the orphanages and who at times loves Skip, but her life too will go through the disillusionment of this existence. She reflects: they have “worshipped their own lies, spat on their own dreams, turned their backs on their true beliefs”By telling the interspersed stories of several characters, Johnson depicts a thoughtful portrait of the Vietnam War. The disillusionment, the gritty reality, the loss of morals --many themes explored in language that is both a challenge and a pleasure to discover.
Is this review helpful? Yes | NoThank you for your feedback.
Denis Johnson has created a Faulknerian epic of the Vietnam war, with hired assassins, combat-loving soldiers, and a mysterious colonel who orchestrates behind-the-scenes plots to wage a private conflict. The characters are well drawn and believable, and the plotting complex. If the ending is less than satisfying, it does not detract from the pleasure of getting to it.
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Towards the end of the novel, one of the protagonists says:I have betrayedMy kindred out of allegiance to my lordsMy lords out of allegiance to my countryMy country out of allegiance to kindredAnother character muses at one point: “Well, you were sad about the kids for a while, for a month, two months, three months. You’re sad about the kids, sad about the animals, you don’t do the women, you don’t kill the animals, but after that you realize this is a war zone and everybody here lives in it. You don’t care whether these people live or die tomorrow, you don’t care whether you yourself live or die tomorrow, you kick the children aside, you do the women, you shoot the animals”.This is a novel about the morally and spiritually deadening effects of not just war, but of the particular war that was Vietnam; a war fought in a confusion of purposes or, perhaps more dangerous, in the light of certainties such as the containment of communism at all costs; a war where survival meant ignoring the distinction between friend and foe or at least not making much effort in that regard; a war where empathy and human feelings were soon smothered and from where it was a short step to taking revenge on defenseless people of whom there were always many ready at hand; a war, not unlike others in this regard, where personalities and bureaucratic fights for supremacy and control and power overshadowed any larger purpose; a war where those practicing it create their own realities (“Ninety-nine percent of the shit that goes through my head on a daily basis is against the law. But not here. Here the shit in my head is the law and nothing but the law.”); a war where the larger reality is lost (“We’re on the cutting edge of reality itself. Right where it turns into a dream.”); a war about very young, often not well educated and certainly not very sophisticated men (“He was like that, that’s all, mostly when he drank, which was most of the time; otherwise he was just mostly young and mostly stupid, like most of the rest of them.”) are given basic training and indoctrination and then turned loose with awful weaponry at their command.I am reminded of a saying about grand theories being pregnant with mountains of corpses, and it is this human side of suffering and death that is so often lost, but not by Johnson in this passage:“It likely hadn’t been napalm, she saw, but rather a white-phosphorous bomb. At the sound of low aircraft the villagers had raced for the cover of the jungle. Several had been killed. One, a young girl, still survived, deep in shock, extensively charred, naked. Nothing could be done. Kathy didn’t touch her. The villagers sat surrounding her in the dusk. The pallid green shimmering of her burns competed with the last light. She looked magical, and in Kathy’s exhaustion and in this atmosphere of aftermath and silence the scene felt dreamed. The girl was like some idol powered by moonlight. After all signs of life had ceased, her flesh went on glowing in the dark.” The novel follows a number of principal characters, both American and Vietnamese, representing a panoply or professions and people. It is searing in its indictment of the perversion of life and of wasted lives. Not, I think, the masterpiece that some describe, but well written, direct, complex, descriptive, emotional.
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"Tree of Smoke," "Fog of War," "Heart of Darkness" -- apparently, clarity of vision is one of the inevitable casualties of any protracted conflict. Original objectives, rules of engagement, perceptions of right and wrong, the true nature of the enemy -- these concepts eventually begin to shift and tumble like the colored shards in a kaleidoscope.I've always preferred viewing movies about the Viet Nam War over reading books about the same. Stone, Kubrick, and Coppola have all captured the tragedy, heroism, and absurdity of Viet Nam with a sensory immediacy that leaves the viewer exhausted but edified -- the 2-3 hour cinematic journey is painful, but the viewer emerges from the experience as a better person. When Denis Johnson's "Tree of Smoke" won the National Book Award for fiction, I decided I would overcome my hesitancy about Viet Nam novels and actually read the book.Three weeks and 600 pages later, I've reached two conclusions: 1) Reading about a brutal, senseless war for days on end is considerably more draining than viewing 2 hours of "Full Metal Jacket." I read a good portion of the book while vacationing in Cabo San Lucas, and it colored my experience of the entire trip. 2) That being said, I am glad I read Johnson's prizewinner. The book's title, "Tree of Smoke," aptly reflects a theme that is explored throughout the novel: the ambiguity and duality of human nature, and our innate drive to seek absolutes in a gray world that rebuffs our attempts to answer life's deepest questions.The book's primary story is that of Skip Sands, a CIA Special Ops agent, as he experiences the war and its aftermath from 1964-1984. The reader is also drawn into the tale of Skip's legendary uncle, the Colonel; Skip's wartime lover, a Christian relief worker named Kathy; an unforgettable Viet Cong agent named Trung who "turns" for the US; and two hapless brothers from Arizona who lack all sense of personal direction. Nothing is clear here. Is Skip ultimately a true believer who is betrayed by his country, or a gun-running criminal who has lost his moral compass? Is "The Colonel" a heroic leader worthy of mythic deification, or an alcoholic who has crossed the line from eccentricity to madness? Is Trung a man of conscience who switches his allegiance based upon principle, or an opportunist who cooperates with the highest bidder? Does Kathy believe her missionary message, or is she just going through the motions out of habit? Does the war ruin Bill and James, or are they losers who were destined to meet a bad end under any circumstances? Even the underlying symbolism of the "Tree of Smoke" changes; it is depicted variously as the unwavering pillar of fire that led the Children of Israel out of Egypt, the smoky cloud of an atomic bomb, the murky branches of a CIA organization whose objectives are unclear, and the profound chaos and confusion of combat itself.I highly recommend this book.
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