Monday, October 15, 2007

Where there's smoke . . . there isn't always fire

Books now read in ’07: 97
Title: Tree of Smoke
Author: Denis Johnson
Genre: Fiction
Date Completed: 10-6
Pages: 614

Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke is an ambitious novel that ultimately stumbles on its own ambition.

Johnson strives for some combination of Conrad (Heart of Darkness) and Greene (The Quiet American), but ultimately achieves the brilliance of neither. His Kurtz-like Colonel is only an ineffectual drunk, while the Colonel’s guilt-ridden nephew drifts into irrelevance and piracy uncertain whether he’s a quiet American or an ugly one.

The novel opens in the Philippines in 1963 and concludes in 1983 in multiple locations including Thailand, Malaysia and America. In between, of course, the action takes place in Vietnam. There are two principal stories; the first involving the Colonel and his unauthorized efforts to place a double agent in North Vietnam and the second featuring the two Houston brothers. The stories intersect briefly, and violently.

Tree of Smoke is a big, muscular novel. Johnson was going for the fences with this book, and there are some fine passages, but the whole is not greater than a sum of the parts. Tree of Smoke has its fans. Its reviews have been uniformly generous, it was shortlisted for the National Book Award and is the likely winner of that honor. Still, I didn’t like it much.

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