Within the current political climate, the reader might expect a new novel about the war in Vietnam to provide a metaphor for Iraq. Yet Denis Johnson has bigger whales to land in his longest and most ambitious work to date. Tree of Smoke is less concerned with any individual war than with the nature of war, and with the essence of war novels. There are echoes here of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (particularly as transformed by Francis Ford Coppola into Apocalypse Now) and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, yet Johnson’s achievement suggests that each generation gets the war—and the war novel—it deserves.
At the center of Johnson’s epic sprawl is Colonel Francis Sands, the novel’s Captain Ahab, a character of profound, obsessive complexity and contradiction. Is he visionary or madman, patriot or traitor? Dead or alive? Or, somehow, all of the above? Because the reader perceives the Colonel (as he is reverently known) through the eyes of other characters, he shimmers like a kaleidoscope of shifting impressions. His military involvement in Asia preceded Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, and he has continued to operate as a CIA agent within the shadows of Vietnam, while perhaps answering to no authority higher than his own.
From World War II through the war in Vietnam, much has changed—allegiances and alliances, public sentiment, the modes of modern warfare. Yet the Colonel hasn’t—he won’t or he can’t. Though he is plainly the novel’s pivotal figure, Johnson spends more time inside the psyche of the Colonel’s nephew, William “Skip” Sands, whose father died in action and whose enlistment extends a family tradition. He’s as naïve as the Colonel is worldly, as filled with self-doubt as his uncle is free of it, but he ultimately joins his relative in psychological operations against the enemy—whomever that may be. Eventually, he must decide whether it is possible to serve both his legendary relative and his country.
A less engaging subplot concerns half-brothers Bill and James Houston, who enter the war as teenagers to escape their dead-end lives in Arizona. Where the Sands family operates on the periphery of the war, the Houstons are deep in the muck of it. Though they are what once might have been called cannon fodder, the war gives their lives definition and a sense of mission, of destiny, that is missing back home—which will never again feel like home after Vietnam.
It’s more than coincidence that the novel features two sets of relatives whose blood ties are once removed, for the family that one chooses is ultimately more important than the family into which one happens to be born. Thus it is all the more imperative to choose wisely—and all the more difficult, given the duplicity that the war seems to require for self-preservation. As the novel obliterates all distinctions between good and evil, allies and enemies, loyalty and betrayal, it sustains the suspense of who will survive long enough to have the last word.