It’s more than coincidence that the novel features two sets of relatives whose blood ties are once removed, for the family...


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.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 2007

ISBN: 978-0-374-27912-7

Page Count: 624

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2007

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The years pass by at a fast and steamy clip in Blume’s latest adult novel (Wifey, not reviewed; Smart Women, 1984) as two friends find loyalties and affections tested as they grow into young women. In sixth grade, when Victoria Weaver is asked by new girl Caitlin Somers to spend the summer with her on Martha’s Vineyard, her life changes forever. Victoria, or more commonly Vix, lives in a small house; her brother has muscular dystrophy; her mother is unhappy, and money is scarce. Caitlin, on the other hand, lives part of the year with her wealthy mother Phoebe, who’s just moved to Albuquerque, and summers with her father Lamb, equally affluent, on the Vineyard. The story of how this casual invitation turns the two girls into what they call "Summer sisters" is prefaced with a prologue in which Vix is asked by Caitlin to be her matron of honor. The years in between are related in brief segments by numerous characters, but mostly by Vix. Caitlin, determined never to be ordinary, is always testing the limits, and in adolescence falls hard for Von, an older construction worker, while Vix falls for his friend Bru. Blume knows the way kids and teens speak, but her two female leads are less credible as they reach adulthood. After high school, Caitlin travels the world and can’t understand why Vix, by now at Harvard on a scholarship and determined to have a better life than her mother has had, won’t drop out and join her. Though the wedding briefly revives Vix’s old feelings for Bru, whom Caitlin is marrying, Vix is soon in love with Gus, another old summer friend, and a more compatible match. But Caitlin, whose own demons have been hinted at, will not be so lucky. The dark and light sides of friendship breathlessly explored in a novel best saved for summer beachside reading.

Pub Date: May 8, 1998

ISBN: 0-385-32405-7

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Delacorte

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 1998

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The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

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Four men who meet as college roommates move to New York and spend the next three decades gaining renown in their professions—as an architect, painter, actor and lawyer—and struggling with demons in their intertwined personal lives.

Yanagihara (The People in the Trees, 2013) takes the still-bold leap of writing about characters who don’t share her background; in addition to being male, JB is African-American, Malcolm has a black father and white mother, Willem is white, and “Jude’s race was undetermined”—deserted at birth, he was raised in a monastery and had an unspeakably traumatic childhood that’s revealed slowly over the course of the book. Two of them are gay, one straight and one bisexual. There isn’t a single significant female character, and for a long novel, there isn’t much plot. There aren’t even many markers of what’s happening in the outside world; Jude moves to a loft in SoHo as a young man, but we don’t see the neighborhood change from gritty artists’ enclave to glitzy tourist destination. What we get instead is an intensely interior look at the friends’ psyches and relationships, and it’s utterly enthralling. The four men think about work and creativity and success and failure; they cook for each other, compete with each other and jostle for each other’s affection. JB bases his entire artistic career on painting portraits of his friends, while Malcolm takes care of them by designing their apartments and houses. When Jude, as an adult, is adopted by his favorite Harvard law professor, his friends join him for Thanksgiving in Cambridge every year. And when Willem becomes a movie star, they all bask in his glow. Eventually, the tone darkens and the story narrows to focus on Jude as the pain of his past cuts deep into his carefully constructed life.  

The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

Pub Date: March 10, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-385-53925-8

Page Count: 720

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2015

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