The plan was to knock out this review last Friday because it would have been apt to review a big book by an American author on Independence Day. It would have been timely because one of the many questions that Denis Johnson asks in Tree of Smoke is about exactly what America is and what its boys were fighting for in Vietnam.
This book comes with the blurb on the dust jacket informing you of its high qualities but for the first 200 pages you are wondering just what the critics were on about. Part of the problem is that the story is disjointed and the background is being painted in but it is not until you get the chance to stand back and see the picture that it starts to make sense and become an easier and in place gripping read.
There are relationships between families that are used as pivots to move the story on. The two most important characters are Skip Sands, a man wrestling with his own motivation for being in the war working for the CIA but more directly working for his uncle ‘the general’.
Then there is James Houston who joins up despite hearing how miserable life is from his elder brother who is in the navy. The teenager lies about his age to get straight into the war zone and joins the infantry to go in as a grunt into Vietnam.
Meanwhile after bumbling around the Philippines cataloguing a card file system established by his uncle Skip finally makes it to the war. In the meantime he has met some shady characters that are working their own mini-war within a war.
Once in Vietnam the world melts and the line between good and bad disappears and in the case of Houston his moral compass cracks. Sands is also stuck in the middle of a war but it is between one half of the CIA and his Uncle. The Washington-based half is fighting a war different to those that have understood the horror of the conflict on the ground.
It would be too simple to describe this as a war novel but the fighting scenes are delivered brilliantly but what is more powerful are the post combat passages where a character like James is killing innocent women one day through his drug fuelled battle shocked state and is then home just a few days later.
You sense that the point Johnson is making is that the reason why the veterans were failed is that no one really understood the transition they had to make from world of unreality to world of mundane domesticity.
But there are other questions being asked about just how you fight any way, with the tree of smoke a reference to the idea of confusing the enemy with a confusing series of double bluffs. The general wants to wage a psychological warfare that is alien to those counting body bags and strategic hits by bombers. Skip caught in a world on the sidelines doesn’t seem to know who to support and in the end ultimately pays for his personal apathy with his life as he is hanged for gun running years after the war ends.
There is also a religious question with Skip’s affair with Kathy the widowed missionary’s wife who sees the horrors of the war through the eyes of someone trying to save children. What is right more than where is god? Seems to be the question that this book challenges you to find an answer for.
The reason it works so well and grips you is because the tree of smoke plan grips those who knew the general and they never stoop believing that the old man died in an accident in the middle of the war. The search for the general, which turns up a handful of potential gravesites but no living body, goes on until the end of the book. The search for the rights and wrongs of wars like Vietnam continue up to this very minute.
Version read – Farrar, Straus and Giroux hardback