There is a moment in this sprawling, magnificent novel set in the Vietnam War when an assassin, who has killed a previous target using a lovingly handcrafted blowpipe, is told by his handler: "It's a war. Go ahead and use a gun." The line accomplishes two things at once. It shows us the casually ironic brutality of the handler, and it resonates with other times and places in the novel that see people reminding one another that they are in a war. "Yes, I believe we can furnish you all the weapons you want," one soldier amusingly assures some new arrivals. "This is a war." The fact that this is a war becomes a refrain of all-purpose absolution, an excuse for any desired action. Tree of Smoke does not only show that war is hell, though that cliché will always require drilling anew into the heads of those who believe it to be a tool of virtue. But Denis Johnson is also interested in the problem of how to navigate morally when there is always the plea, "It's a war", to fall back on. For this novel, war is absolute freedom. In it, men create their own hell.
Most of the novel's action takes place between 1963 and 1970. It centres on one Colonel Sands, more often known simply as "the colonel", a hero of the Second World War now attached to the CIA's psy-ops division in Vietnam. He has conceived a plan to attack the enemy on the level of their myths, to use their superstitions about vampiric ghosts and suchlike against them; and also to run a double agent back to the north. Assigned to help him is his nephew Skip, a young CIA officer, drunk on the romance of being a spy, who makes index cards for his uncle and embarks on an affair with the American widow of a missionary. Meanwhile, we follow the stories of two young brothers from Phoenix. Bill Houston, discharged from the navy at the novel's start, tries to adjust to civilian life in America, while his younger brother, James, enlists in the army, becoming a recon infantryman assigned to the colonel's mountain headquarters.
The colonel himself, operating under blurry authority, is a figure of smoke, a nexus of myths and impressions, a larger-than-life presence whom Johnson only ever allows the reader to see through the eyes of others. He swears, talks of karma and "the love among comrades", and drinks gallons of bourbon. He is a man of movie-star charisma: "The colonel removed his sunglasses and succeeded in staring the whole platoon in the eye at once." The colonel has theories about flows of information, and Johnson manages carefully the flow of information about the colonel. He comes to be considered, by other spooks, as a kind of Kurtz figure: gone native, gone mad, to be eliminated.
James, meanwhile, is liberated. In local bars he discovers sex, and also "beer's meaning and its purpose". Combat has a clarifying effect: "The firing had ceased. The screeching of insects had stopped. The moment was strong and peaceful. The air had ringing depth. Every last particle of bullshit had been incinerated." Just before, we have seen his brother Bill in a tableau of civilian working life that is imbued with the grim absurdism of the prison-camp: "All day from massive trucks to massive sheds he moved tons and tons of puke-smelling fresh-cut boards, and he never built anything but rectilinear stacks, and little by little he dismantled them." At this dramatic conjunction, James has it better, but he is led mercilessly to an apex of freedom from which there can be no descent.
"Tree of Smoke" is a phrase made by the colonel to describe "a sincere goal for the function of intelligence - restoring intelligence-gathering as the main function of intelligence operations, rather than to provide rationalisations for policy". (This is, of course, also inevitably a novel about the current Iraq War, though its last action takes place in 1983.) But "tree of smoke" is also the literal translation from certain phrases in the Bible, as noted by Skip and also by a Catholic priest, who recalls: "There shall be blood and fire and palm trees of smoke - from Joel, wasn't it?" Further, the colonel jots on an article draft: "'Tree of Smoke' - note similiarity to mushroom cloud. HAH!" (Like Kurtz, he has a penchant for marginalia.) The novel openly invites other literary analogies, with several references to Graham Greene's The Quiet American.
More than Greene's or Conrad's, the novel is densely, thrillingly populated, its inhabitants portrayed through such vivid, searching synecdoche that no character can be called minor. One of James's comrades insists on being called "Black Man", because he won't go by the "slave name" given to his ancestors. Black Man is a philosophising warrior: "You got to watch your karma in a time of war. You don't rape the women or kill any of the animals, lest you get fucked around by the karma . . . You must not, no never, disturb any of the karma." A fellow spy with whom Skip tussles is a tall redhead called Crodelle: "He held up his hands before his face, fingers splayed, head forward, taking careful and passionate aim, as if each of his concepts were a basketball." A lieutenant compresses his life history and politics into one anecdote: "I was dating Darlene Taylor until this hippie named Michael Cook took her to a party and gave her drugs and fucked her and turned her into a hippie, and if Michael the evil hippie is against this war, then I am goddamn for it. That's all I have to know." (To James he says, despairingly: "I can't have people thinking. I can't have it.") And here, stunningly, is a soldier named Baker, talking to his comrades as he dies:
"Fuck, I'm not in the world, man. I'm not."
"You're here, you're okay."
"I don't feel it. It's bullshit."
"I don't feel the world, man."
Throughout the novel, indeed, are scattered moments of crisis when characters come in or out of the world. At a party back home, James "arrived in his body from some dark place, and he was standing outdoors holding a cigarette in one hand and a drink in the other". The war, too, offers this kind of intoxication, this toxic ecstasy.
Johnson even has the imaginative daring to portray phenomenologically the moment of death, twice. First, it is like this: "Abruptly he didn't know where any part of him was, every part of him seemed to go away." Later, someone else is shot: "Simultaneously the entire building turned on its end. The hallway's ceiling passed overhead, the stairs rushed up behind him and struck him in the back, the street door came to a stop upside down, hanging above him . . . The street door above him flew open, and a person was sucked up through it into the enormous darkness beyond. Something unbelievable began to suggest itself." The way in which the character abruptly switches to seeing himself in the third person - "a person was sucked up through it" - exemplifies the unshowy control Johnson exerts over the technicalities of his prose. One has the impression of the writer as blacksmith, hammering his sentences into shapes strong and true.
With that, "Something unbelievable began to suggest itself", and Johnson also wants to leave open a door to transcendence, without striving, or presuming, to describe what lies beyond. The moment is rhymed with another character's experience near the end, in which an alteration of consciousness is again described in remarkably physical terms: "The scene before her flattened, lost one of its dimensions, and the noise dribbled irrelevantly down its face. Something was coming. This moment, this very experience of it, seemed only the thinnest gauze."
Such intimations of epiphany are anchored by the novel's consistent mastery throughout of physical evocation, of sound, smell and touch, in the exquisite sculpture of apparently throwaway lines - "the creak of sweat in his ears"; the way "the sunlight fell on you like an anvil"; "the dishonest glibness of small monkeys in the bush"; a child's vision of "the sadness of grown-ups at their incomprehensible pursuits".
The writing is so good that you want to quote pages of it. The dialogue is so good, and often so funny, that you want to read it aloud. Johnson also accomplishes large-scale narrative effects, wheeling away vertiginously into a timeless, omniscient viewpoint for a controlled explosion of dramatic irony, compressing long stretches of time into a single paragraph, or masking crucial events in impregnable lacuna. Imagine Don DeLillo and Joseph Heller fused. Tree of Smoke is an epic of the senses, the work of a vast and surging sympathy, a masterpiece.