Thursday, November 29, 2012

Tree of Smoke - Denis Johnson

Denis Johnson (1949-)

This book is not on the list, but since I'm in love with Denis Johnson, and it's November...I decided to take a short break from the list and read actual good books for a change and as always Denis Johnson does not disappoint.

Tree of Smoke encompasses 20 years around the aftermath of the Vietnam war, beginning with the assassination of JFK and ending in 1983 where the casualties of the war still limp from place to place, soul searching for a sense of meaning in a wanderlust that leads his characters to be forever pilgrims in a heartbreaking world of chaos.

The book focuses on the the elusive and shattering experience of a war without meaning on the many lives it engulfs, heroes that begin their trek with a sense of purpose and order only to come up against a world impervious to order and hostile to meaning.

Skip Sands, an officer of sorts for the CIA has become the renegade operative following orders from his strange and erratic uncle, a Kurtz type from Conrad's Heart of Darkness, creating his own rules and running his own missions. Tree of Smoke is his mission of disinformation that he intends to unleash on the VC, but in a land where all information is suspect, where there are no rules nor understanding of protocol, his disinformation only serves to make the murky haze of any sort of substantial truth even harder to find as the swirling disinformation traps them all in a quagmire of uncertainty.

James Houston and his brother Bill both enlist. Both anticipating the glory that still resonates from the last great war, both finding instead a world that crushes them stripping them of their souls. Bill gets out as soon as possible only to find himself aimless, lost in the do-nothing streets of Arizona, while James becomes addicted to Vietnam signing up for one tour after another, requesting assignment with the more fringe battalions where there are even less rules and where they operate in a system of cowboy survival.

Kathy Jones is a nurse in a small Vietnamese village, struggling with her faith, struggling with the hopelessness of loss, struggling with the stench that invades everything the smell of blood and offal and the inescapable pain and heartache of an endlessly torched world without a savior.  After Tet, she makes her way to a veterinary clinic in hopes of finding medication for the now many displaced and orphaned children only to find the proprietors overcome with grief over the loss of their monkeys. As they sit surrounded by devastation the scientists reminisce about their monkeys while children in the streets are dying. Kathy, a stoic, a survivor continues to nurse men, women and children in one Vietnamese hamlet after another, waiting for the end of the war.

By 1983, not one of the many characters has remained fully intact. The shrapnel of Vietnam has penetrated their souls and bones to the very marrow, leaving empty shadow people to make sense of their lives and pick up the pieces over and over again. Just as there was no definitive winner to the war, there is also no definitive end; the war is carried with the survivors, ruminated like cud, never to be fully digested.

"She sat in the audience thinking - someone here has cancer, someone has a broken heart, someone's soul is lost, someone feels naked and foreign, thinks they once knew the way but can't remember the way, feels stripped of armor and alone, there are people in this audience with broken bones, others whose bones will break sooner or later, people who've ruined their health, worshiped their own lies, spat on their dreams, turned their backs on their true beliefs, yes, yes, and all will be saved. All will be saved. All will be saved."

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