The taint of an unjust war tarnishes the lives of Vietnam-era Americans in Denis Johnson’s stunning new novel.


Denis Johnson’s first and only book of stories, Jesus’ Son, was a classic the moment it appeared in 1992–this was immediately clear to anyone who read it. But a classic of what? This was less clear. In subject matter, extreme brevity and partly in tone–the stories read as if they’d been scraped from the insides of an already empty man–it continued the hard-boiled minimalism of Raymond Carver, Richard Ford and Tobias Wolff. But the book was also about hitchhikers, misfits and especially drug addicts–its title came from the Velvet Underground’s ode to heroin–and this put it in a different tradition, less of Carver’s suburban miniatures of desperation than of the American hopped-up song of the open road.

You couldn’t help asking this genealogical question–was Johnson writing about the way history crushes people or about how people escape?–because the book itself refused to say. All the characters were lost, unreliable, wandering nowhere. The narrator occasionally wrote pure hallucinatory poetry, but more often he was laconic to the point of evasion. Here he was driving down a road from a farm where his friend had just been shot: “What can be said about those fields? There were blackbirds circling above their own shadows, and beneath them the cows stood around smelling one another’s butts.” Here he was with his friend Wayne, visiting a woman Wayne knew on some deserted stretch of road: “I don’t know what they said to one another. She walked down the steps, and Wayne followed…. She was about forty, with a bloodless, waterlogged beauty. I guessed Wayne was the storm that had stranded her here.” Everyone in the book had been stranded by some such storm, but the more general storm remained obscure.

Johnson’s novels were far more diffuse than Jesus’ Son and allowed the reader some time to think, though they, too, described people in the wake of some catastrophe that had left them hollowed out. Angels (1983), his first novel, begins with Jamie Mays boarding a Greyhound bus to escape her abusive husband; on the bus she meets Bill Houston, a charming drifter, also on the run. They are the angels of the title, and on that bus they get drunk. Johnson’s second novel, Fiskadoro (1985), is set on the Florida coast in the aftermath of a cold war nuclear exchange; Resuscitation of a Hanged Man (1991) is about a youngish salesman who, having attempted suicide, moves to Provincetown, Massachusetts, to sort out his life (and, seeing the wild sexual profusion of the place, immediately regrets it). For all their troubles, Johnson’s characters are oddly cheerful; they live on slimmer margins than many people, and when they slip up they often land in jail–but they seem to like it in jail. Their response to vicious violence is not so much grievance as surprise–“You shot me!” a man says to his wife, after she shoots him. They are drug addicts and alcoholics and depressives, but only because they want to be; Johnson’s world of losers is a democratic one, in which controlled substances are a form of transcendence; for many of the characters, the drugs are the only chance at transcendence they’re going to get.

Taken together, these books, set in the late 1970s and early ’80s (though also, very notably in Fiskadoro, in a postapocalyptic wasteland), read like a dispatch from a particular American world. They told the story of an entire country, the novels beginning at the edges–southern Florida, Provincetown, the California coast–and then moving inland. Often, in fact, they began with driving scenes, descriptions of highways, as if the author were stretching his legs. But for all the specific place names, this America could not be pointed out on a map. It was an America in which, for certain people and without proximate causes, things had gone wrong. The characters had been lumpenized, dislodged from their rightful place by a cataclysm, a storm, and they didn’t know how to get back to land. Gradually, as one read more of Johnson, the name of the storm became clear. Either because the characters had been through it, or were surrounded by people who had been through it, or lived with a kind of collective memory of it: no matter where in America they ended up in those years, the storm was Vietnam.

To finally read an entire novel by Johnson about Vietnam, after watching it hover in the background of all his other work, is to witness an extended primal scene. And in fact Tree of Smoke opens with a primal scene. It is 1963, and Bill Houston, who was last seen at the end of Angels being administered a lethal gas by the state, is a young sailor on his first tour in the Pacific. On the night of November 22 he wakes up to the news that President John F. Kennedy has been assassinated. A few hours later he watches an officer step out of a hut (he has been with a woman) and relieve himself on the ground; and not long after that, Houston watches the same officer walk into a bar and unleash the first of the book’s many virtuoso verbal eruptions:

“Colonel, they caught him,” [the bartender] Sam told the officer. “His name is Oswald.”
 The colonel said, “What kind of name is that?”–apparently as outraged by the killer’s name as by his atrocity.
 ”Fucking sonofabitch,” Sam said.
 ”The sonofabitch,” said the colonel. “I hope they shoot his balls off. I hope they shoot him up the ass.” Wiping at his tears without embarrassment he said, “Is Oswald his first name or his last name?”
 Houston told himself that first he’d seen this officer pissing on the ground, and now he was watching him cry.

The colonel, as we later learn, is a legendary combat veteran, now a CIA psy-ops chieftain; he is also an old Boston Catholic, and his unembarrassed tears over the death of Kennedy, with young Bill Houston watching, are like nothing so much as the tears of the blaspheming Mr. Casey at the dinner table in the first chapter of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: “Poor Parnell! he cried loudly. My dead king!” That book is about learning gradually that you belong to a fallen race; over the course of this one, Bill Houston will learn it too.

Tree of Smoke traces the gradual American descent into Vietnam. It follows Bill Houston through his two tours with the Navy; Bill’s younger brother James, who joins the Army in 1967, just in time for the Tet offensive; the cursing Colonel Sands from the first scene; his nephew Skip Sands, a young CIA operative; and a Vietnamese family collaborating with the Americans. Skip is the book’s central character: his uncle has assigned him the quixotic task of compiling a gigantic catalogue of all known information gathered by the CIA on Vietnam. The code name for this catalogue, which is recorded exclusively on index cards and occupies several footlockers that Skip transports from the Philippines to the States to Saigon, is the Tree of Smoke of the title, and in the process of refreshing the catalogue Skip gradually loses interest in the war.

Skip is a cipher at the center of the book, slowly drifting into madness; but the soldiers in the book, primarily the Houston brothers and a Vietcong double agent named Trung Tran, meanwhile spin out at great velocity. Johnson rarely writes so well as when he is describing their experiences of the world. Here, for example, is how Bill Houston leaves the Navy in 1968:

Three weeks short of his scheduled release from the navy, Bill Houston had a fight with a black man in the Yokosuka enlisted mess, in the kitchen, where he’d been detailed with three other sailors to paint the walls. Houston’s unvaried style of attack was to come in low and fast, get his left shoulder into the other man’s midriff while hooking his left arm behind the man’s knee, and upend them both so that Houston came down on top, driving his shoulder into the solar plexus with his full weight behind it. He practiced other moves as well, because he considered fighting important, but this opening generally worked with the tough opponents, the ones who stood their ground and raised their dukes.

This description is typical of Johnson–it is poised on a knife’s edge between pure pathos (a white man fighting a black man, hopelessly, in a kitchen of an American Army base in a foreign country in 1968) and pure comedy (the move Houston practices is a preposterous one, at least for practicing). But the key clause, the knife’s edge itself, is “because he considered fighting important.” It is important–and ridiculous. In other words, Johnson takes Bill Houston seriously–but not more seriously than he takes himself.

A few weeks later, Houston is a civilian again:

He encountered the outskirts of Phoenix sooner than he’d expected. It was much more of a city now, tires wailing on Interstate Ten and loud jet airliners coming in overhead, their lights shimmering in the blue desert twilight. What time was it? He didn’t have a watch. In fact, what day? Houston stood at Seventeenth and Thomas under a broken streetlamp. He had thirty-seven dollars. He was twenty-two years old. He hadn’t tasted beer in almost a month. Lacking a plan, he phoned his mother.

Once we learn about Houston’s mother, we realize this wasn’t much of a plan at all.

One of Skip’s psy-ops assignments for the colonel is to explore the myths of the local population–their demon myths in particular. The colonel is obsessed with breaking up the network, partly mythical, of the Vietcong tunnels that form a separate universe below the ground and below human perception.

For all his interest in visceral American language and experience, Johnson has also always operated at the underground level of myth and demons. The organization of Tree of Smoke along simple chronology–1963 followed by 1964, as advisers are followed by helicopters are followed by the Gulf of Tonkin–cannot obscure the deeper logic that draws the country into war. There is the logic of the planners, who know well in advance just what’s going to happen: in 1966, a drunken Bill Houston and another sailor are suddenly confronted while on shore leave by a uniformed admiral, who wants to know if they’re having a nice time. They say they are and give him the finger. “I hope like hell you are,” counters the admiral. “Because hard times are coming for assholes like you.” There is the logic of American intelligence gathering, corrupted (in one of Johnson’s clearest references to the current situation in Iraq) by the desires of the planners. And there is the logic of American obligation, noblesse oblige in the form of helicopter gunships. With his signature sympathy, Johnson traces the fate of the Vietnamese family that has decided to work with the Americans. “The Americans had remembered,” the head of the family thinks late in the book after they are evacuated to Malaysia, “had kept their promises to him, and even to his country. They hadn’t failed to keep such a promise. They’d simply lost the war.”

Above all there is the logic of American life–and how it brutalizes the segment of the population left behind by the changes in the American economy after 1945. Vietnam is the most violent, loudest expression of this change–but it hardly exhausts it. Powerless stateside, the characters seek to alter their fates in any way they can. Bill signs up for another tour because he is “enchanted above all by the power to create his destiny just by signing his name.” James enlists for the money and the adventure. On his last night in Arizona, he gets abjectly drunk around his friends. “They threw him on the ground and hosed him down. The dirt turned to slime around him and he crouched in it, flailing, trying to stand upright.” This is a world where the police, the Army and one’s friends from home cease to be distinguishable in any meaningful way. Step to the left and you are in prison; step to the right and you’re in the Army. Keep going forward and you’re stuck in some awful job. At least in Vietnam you get to shoot people.

The most devastating passages in Tree of Smoke describe not the terrors of war but the terrors of home in an era of industrial consolidation and blue-collar defeat. Bill Houston’s first job after he returns home and calls his mother is as the nighttime cleanup man at a giant cement concern:

He made a circuit among the maze of conveyor belts under gargantuan crushers and was never done. The next evening the same belts, the same motions, even some of the same pebbles and rocks, it stood to reason, and the same cold take-out burger for lunch at the dusty table in the manager’s trailer at 2:00 a.m.; washing his hands and face first in the narrow john, his thick neck brown as a bear’s, sucking water up his nostrils and expelling the dust in liverish clumps.

Bill Houston can’t stand it. He starts drinking heavily and ends up in prison. Two-hundred and fifty pages later, he is back at work, this time driving a forklift at a lumberyard, where “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.” This is grim, and it does remind you of those other American and British writers of factory work, the crushing of the spirit by the mechanization of labor.

But Johnson is not a Dreiser, watching as mighty forces grind his characters to dust. The wonderful, exuberant and original thing about him as a writer is his insistence that within the soul-destroying unfreedom of American life there are always moments of freedom, humor and grace–“stolen,” as Bill Houston puts it, remembering rushed cigarettes in the high school bathroom, “from the whole world.” Bill and James Houston will end their lives trying to rob a bank in Angels–“the greatest crime on earth,” as another imprisoned Johnson character calls it, with characteristic good humor, in Resuscitation of a Hanged Man–but even with his final breaths Bill finds himself immensely joyful at each successive one. These counter-notes, which appear throughout Johnson’s books and in Tree of Smoke in particular–which contains some of the richest, most surprising and least affected American dialogue I have ever read, as if the characters themselves were breaking free of their author–reveal the third and perhaps most powerful strain in Johnson’s work. In addition to the Hemingway-Carver minimalist strain and the Kerouac-Burroughs hopped-up strain there is the Catholic strain of spiritual agony and transcendence, in which his two closest kin are Flannery O’Connor and Don DeLillo.

For Johnson, Vietnam cannot be an end to American innocence or a fall from grace any more than September 11 or the invasion of Iraq can–America had already fallen from grace, long ago. To forget that and then, having forgotten it, to invade another country; to then claim that it is necessary to invade yet another country (Cambodia, in this instance) to help prosecute the war in the first country–well, that’s a sin.

What do you do, how do you recover, how do you receive grace again? “You think we’ll actually lose?” Skip asks his uncle in Tree of Smoke. “Is that what you think, ultimately?”

“Ultimately?” His uncle seemed surprised by the word. “Ultimately I think… we’ll be forgiven. I believe we’ll wander in the darkness for a good long time, and some of what we do here will never be made right, but we will be forgiven.”

It’s not an entirely satisfactory answer–as if the troubles of the jungles and fields of Vietnam, poisoned by American chemical bombardment, or the plains of the American Midwest, taken from the people who used to farm them, were a simple matter of forgiveness. But to confess your sins is, at least, the beginning of grace. With Tree of Smoke, Johnson has completed, in reverse chronological order, a moral and mythic history for the twenty-year period between the Kennedy assassination and the first years of the Reagan revolution. Is anyone so vain as to think we no longer inhabit the world he has described?

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