Monday, April 12, 2010

Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson


Bit of a slog, but I liked this. Read Johnson's Fiskadoro many years ago, when he was first getting published, and liked it alot. This is the first Vietnam novel that I've read in years and years. There's a certain Apocalypse Now build-up to it, one central character behind a mythical American advisor who may or may not have "crossed over" to the native side, out of an obscure faith in the power and imagery of the Viet Cong's nativism. The CIA ma, the "colonel's" nephew, waits patiently for his assignment, the running of a double agent.

Another narrative thread concerns two brothers, one in the military in Southeast Asia, and the younger brother who stays behind. Their roots are desperate lower-class, blue-collar, white-trash American Southwest, and Johnson weaves a series of phone calls and brief meetings over the years where the brothers finally get to know each other for the first time.

Another interesting character is a woman involved with a charity mission in Thailand and Vietnam, slowly going crazy from her isolation and exposure to the horrors of the plight of children in nations completely obliterated by wars being fought between superpowers that use their tiny backward nation as a battlefield.

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