Category: denis johnson

Thoughts at the half way point of Nobody Move

if there is one element that echoes Tree of Smoke, the only other Johnson I have read, then it is the dry humour. Apart from that this is a book with a very different style.

As you start reading this story of gamblers, debts and guns you are reminded of No Country for Old men by Cormac McCarthy with the idea of someone being hunted down and Chandler for the heady mix of attractive women and double crossing.

The main focus is on Jerry Luntz who makes the mistake of shooting the man who has been sent to collect the debts the barber shop singer and gambler has run up. The shot is not fatal and so a game of cat and mouse starts. Thrown into the mix is a beautiful woman who is being chased by the feds for embezzling $2.3m.

When she strikes up a relationship with Luntz you know the two will act as a magnet for trouble.

This is great fun with some good moments that make you chuckle. okay so Johnson isn’t Chandler but then again he is operating in a more violent world and his writing has to reflect that.

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book review – Nobody Move – Denis Johnson

“Luntz turned and flung himself to the ground, hearing gunshots, and his senses ceased functioning. When the darkness and silence ended he was over the side of the hill and standing behind the building and hearing the river, and now his senses were sharp, precise.”

If you were to put the bleak violence of McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men and the sharp style of Raymond Chandler into a blender then this mixture is the likely result. A sharp but cruel tale of gamblers, gangsters and greed is played out against the backdrop of sleazy clubs and drinking dens.

Motels, cadillacs and guns feature along with extreme violence. Thugs relish the chance to kill their rivals while at the back the brains of the operation pull the strings.

For those that were criminals hoping to put the past behind them all too quickly they are dragged back into it and their chances of getting to their next birthday’s quickly drop down to zero.

So bearing all that in mind why should you care about the relationship between the two main characters Jimmy Luntz the barbershop crooning gambler and his femme fatale Anita as they kill and con heir way through life? Perhaps it is because in a world of complete evil some are less so than others and there is also some truth to the idea that love can emerge even in the most difficult of circumstances.

Compared to Tree of Smoke the style is different but that sense of pace you get in the last 200 pages of that book is the same here from the start. The moment that Luntz decides to shoot rather than pay his way out of trouble the action begins and he makes that decision just a few pages in.

For those that like their crime novels with bullets and blood then this fits the bill but it also comes with plenty of humour and leaves you thinking about just who is wrong when the conned decide to start kicking back at those who have conned them.

book review – Tree of Smoke

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

book review – Tree of Smoke

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

Tree of Smoke – post VIII

By the time the last couple of words float past your eyes you have become completely immersed in a world where truth and reality are far removed.

The colonel, or his ghost, haunts those who knew him with the old fighter somehow becoming something much more powerful for Storm, Hao and Skip as the years go by.

Did he die? In the end even Storm, who chases him until 1983 has to admit that it looks like he has. Just over the Thai border he catches up with Anders Pitchfork and is shown the colonel’s grave.

Did the colonel protect his own? Skip reappears waiting to die in a Kuala Lumpur jail for gun running and is still fighting his demons and his own war against himself.

Was any of it worth it? As James and Bill Houston slip in and out of jail unable to ever comes to terms with what they saw, in the case of the older brother a single cruel blooded murder, and in James’s case hell, the costs are all too clear.

But as Kathy reminds us as she digests some of Skip’s last words and thoughts, it is possible for everyone to be saved.

In terms of describing just how it must have felt to have been one day in the killing fields and the next at home struggling top adapt then this book seems to nail that transition and it seems that the biggest failure of the US was understanding just what type of war this was and what it did to its own soldiers.

A review will follow soon…

Tree of Smoke – post VII

One of the big questions apart from the one about the existence of God is the challenge about the truth.

What is real and who is on your side? Those two things focus the mind of all the main characters as the war starts to fall apart around them.

James Houston follows his brother back home after losing perspective so dramatically he kills a woman and tried to blow up some green berets. He is sent home, something that is almost like a prison sentence for someone addicted to the killing and lawlessness of fighting in Vietnam.

For Skip the news of his mother’s death is quickly followed by that of his uncle the Colonel. With the death of his protector the anti Tree of Smoke forces in the Agency start to dismantle the project with Hao the Colonel’s driver and friend happy to turn against him.

The double agent waits to find out his fortune and is saved from the German assassin’s bullet by Storm, the Colonel’s sidekick, who happily turns another Agency plan into a mess. That failure is going to be pinned on Skip, but he manages to escape and head off into Vietnam and into the dream state of a country collapsing into chaos.

But is the colonel really dead? That questions floats around, as does the idea that some of the Godless killing for kicks might face a moment when they have to face their conscience.

This is sometimes rambling and sometimes annoyingly wide in its story telling ambition shifting focus just when a character comes alive. But it is also gripping and with the colonel becoming a physical embodiment of the Tree of Smoke, confusing his own side more than the enemy, predicting where this story will go is difficult – that’s the fun.

More tomorrow…

Tree of Smoke – post VI

Tree of Smoke is a really lesson in reading. The first 200 pages seemed to be going nowhere fast and then with a bang this book grabs your round the throat and you are hooked.

As the action calms down from the James Houston storyline of combat in Tet in 1968 it moves to concentrate on the Tree of Smoke plan being carried out by Skip Sands uncle. The colonel plans to use a double agent to plant disinformation. The only problem is that the rest of the CIA don’t seem to be prepared to go along with it and the colonel is falling apart and falling off the pace as the war changes tack and becomes something embarrassing to the authorities.

It’s 1969 and the idea that the war can be won is evaporating and now the true sense of despair is setting in. For those that have been taken through the hell of fighting and lost their morals and minds to the war the idea of going back to civilisation and back home is completely alien.

“I’m here because I won’t go back to my homeland. Go back to what? A bewildering place full of left-leaning feminine weirdos. What if I do go back? What then? Retire to North Carolina and die and get a forty-foot bridge over a creek named after me.”

If Johnson managed to convey the sense of fear and confusion of war then he follows that up with a very believable picture of the sense of reality drift felt by those in Vietnam who have lost touch with everything that they left behind at home.

Films like Platoon and Full Metal Jacket also get that sense across but here it is much more tangible and as a the spy versus spy story emerges that grips you almost as much as the battlegrounds in the jungles of Tet.

With his mother dead, the colonel murdered and the war closing him out – something Skip Sands so much wanted to be part of – where next? That’s what keeps you reading.

More tomorrow…