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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Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

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A retelling of ancient Greek lore gives exhilarating voice to a witch.

“Monsters are a boon for gods. Imagine all the prayers.” So says Circe, a sly, petulant, and finally commanding voice that narrates the entirety of Miller’s dazzling second novel. The writer returns to Homer, the wellspring that led her to an Orange Prize for The Song of Achilles (2012). This time, she dips into The Odyssey for the legend of Circe, a nymph who turns Odysseus’ crew of men into pigs. The novel, with its distinctive feminist tang, starts with the sentence: “When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.” Readers will relish following the puzzle of this unpromising daughter of the sun god Helios and his wife, Perse, who had negligible use for their child. It takes banishment to the island Aeaea for Circe to sense her calling as a sorceress: “I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands open. I stepped into those woods and my life began.” This lonely, scorned figure learns herbs and potions, surrounds herself with lions, and, in a heart-stopping chapter, outwits the monster Scylla to propel Daedalus and his boat to safety. She makes lovers of Hermes and then two mortal men. She midwifes the birth of the Minotaur on Crete and performs her own C-section. And as she grows in power, she muses that “not even Odysseus could talk his way past [her] witchcraft. He had talked his way past the witch instead.” Circe’s fascination with mortals becomes the book’s marrow and delivers its thrilling ending. All the while, the supernatural sits intriguingly alongside “the tonic of ordinary things.” A few passages coil toward melodrama, and one inelegant line after a rape seems jarringly modern, but the spell holds fast. Expect Miller’s readership to mushroom like one of Circe’s spells.

Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

Pub Date: April 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-316-55634-7

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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While a few weeks ago it seemed as if Praeger would have a two month lead over Dutton in their presentation of this Soviet best seller, both the "authorized" edition (Dutton's) and the "unauthorized" (Praeger's) will appear almost simultaneously. There has been considerable advance attention on what appears to be as much of a publishing cause celebre here as the original appearance of the book in Russia. Without entering into the scrimmage, or dismissing it as a plague on both your houses, we will limit ourselves to a few facts. Royalties from the "unauthorized" edition will go to the International Rescue Committee; Dutton with their contracted edition is adhering to copyright conventions. The Praeger edition has two translators and one of them is the translator of Doctor Zhivago Dutton's translator, Ralph Parker, has been stigmatized by Praeger as "an apologist for the Soviet regime". To the untutored eye, the Dutton translation seems a little more literary, the Praeger perhaps closer to the rather primitive style of the original. The book itself is an account of one day in the three thousand six hundred and fifty three days of the sentence to be served by a carpenter, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov. (Solzhenitsyn was a political prisoner.) From the unrelenting cold without, to the conditions within, from the bathhouse to the latrine to the cells where survival for more than two weeks is impossible, this records the hopeless facts of existence as faced by thousands who went on "living like this, with your eyes on the ground". The Dutton edition has an excellent introduction providing an orientation on the political background to its appearance in Russia by Marvin Kalb. All involved in its publication (translators, introducers, etc.) claim for it great "artistic" values which we cannot share, although there is no question of its importance as a political and human document and as significant and tangible evidence of the de-Stalinization program.

Pub Date: June 15, 1963

ISBN: 0451228146

Page Count: 181

Publisher: Praeger

Review Posted Online: Oct. 5, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 1963

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