Tree of Smoke 
by Denis Johnson.
Picador, 614 pp., £16.99, November 2007, 978 0 330 44920 5
Show More
Show More

In 1943, chemists at Harvard came up with a cheap and simple way to thicken petrol into a gel. Not only was it easier to use in flame-throwers in this non-drip form, but it would conveniently stick to things – wood, metal, flesh – as it burned. The thickener was originally made with coprecipitated aluminium salts of naphthenic and palmitic acids, which is how it came to be known as napalm. The first napalm incendiary bombs were dropped on a fuel depot near St Lô during the Allied invasion of Normandy in 1944. The stuff was later used by the United States against the Japanese, by the Greek government against the Communists in 1946-49, as well as by UN forces in Korea and French troops in Indochina during the 1950s. But it was the Americans in Vietnam who made napalm famous.

Napalm is one of the first things that the title of Denis Johnson’s new novel brings to mind. Think of the opening of Apocalypse Now, the paradisal grove of palm trees against a clear sky, gradually obscured by clouds of dust whipped up by helicopter rotor blades, then suddenly obliterated by a salvo of incendiary bombs: green and blue turning to brown then exploding in an inferno of orange and black, as the camera begins a slow pan to the right before the scene fades into a close-up of Martin Sheen’s upside-down face. In Coppola’s film, it takes precisely a minute for heaven to be turned into hell; in Tree of Smoke the process is a little slower.

The novel begins on 23 November 1963: ‘Last night at 3 a.m. President Kennedy had been killed.’ It was midday in Dallas when Kennedy was shot; ‘Seaman Houston and the other two recruits’ who ‘slept while the first reports travelled around the world’ must be far from home. It may be naive now to regard Kennedy’s assassination as a loss of innocence, though it’s still possible to see why it seemed so at the time. The next day, Bill Houston, who’s stationed in the Philippines, goes boar hunting, and for no good reason shoots a monkey. ‘It hoisted itself, pushing off the ground with one arm, and sat back against the tree trunk with its legs spread out before it, like somebody resting from a difficult job of labour.’ This is another loss of innocence, altogether more private than the death of the president, and altogether more real. Houston ‘felt as if everything was all his fault, and with no one around to know about it, he let himself cry like a child. He was 18 years old.’

Later in the day, Houston encounters a ‘crew-cut man in his forties with a white towel hitched under his belly and a cigarette clamped between his front teeth’. This is Colonel Sands, a messianic CIA officer and veteran of the Second World War, who drinks too much and takes an unusual and obsessive interest in the tunnels that Vietminh cadres have dug ‘all under Vietnam’. ‘I’m in intelligence,’ he says magnificently. ‘I’m after the truth.’ The colonel has a nephew, William ‘Skip’ Sands, who also works for the CIA, and who is also based in the Philippines. His uncle sends him on a mission up country, ‘his first official operation as an intelligence officer’, to investigate a suspect American priest called Father Thomas Carignan. But Carignan has gone on an unofficial mission of his own, to identify and recover what might be the remains of a missing Canadian Seventh-Day Adventist called Timothy Jones, from deep in the jungle:

As they left the mesa and descended toward a creek deep in a ravine . . . there came a faint crackling from somewhere behind the next peak, and they fell under the shadow of a mass of smoke in the sky ahead of them, a black column rising straight upward in the windless day. There shall be blood and fire and palm trees of smoke – from Joel, wasn’t it? . . . Joel, yes, the second chapter, usually translated ‘pillars of smoke’, but the original Hebrew said ‘palm trees of smoke’.

He returns with the Canadian’s bones, but Sands doesn’t have much time to crossexamine him, because Carignan is abruptly murdered while washing in the river by a German assassin with a blowpipe.

Tree of Smoke is full of such truncated and aborted missions, such sudden and surprising deaths. Like the war it takes as its subject, it becomes ever more complicated, more vicious, sadder and more despairing (though there’s always a certain amount of laughter in the dark), while the characters caught up in it try to make it make sense in ever more desperate and convoluted ways. A single quest narrative with a single protagonist, as in Apocalypse Now, Johnson implies, can’t begin to be adequate to the task of describing the confusion of Vietnam. ‘Our mission parameters are very elastic,’ Colonel Sands says. ‘I’d say we’re operating without benefit of any clear parameters at all.’

In a compelling but evidently insane set-piece exposition, the colonel compares the war to the 1966 football ‘Game of the Century’ between Michigan State and Notre Dame, ‘my alma mater’. ‘It’s important to me not just as a former tackle for the Fighting Irish, but as an enemy of the Vietcong right here and now,’ he says. Michigan State, playing at home, were ‘tromping us ten to nothing’. But Notre Dame managed to scrape together ten points from out of nowhere, and then, with ninety seconds to go, ‘Irish have the ball on our own thirty-yard line. There’s the field. There’s the goal. Here are the men.’ But the coach chooses ‘to run the clock out and take the tie’, which ‘still left them in first place, nationally’, and they did eventually win the championship. ‘Maybe it was wise,’ the colonel says, ‘but it was wrong. Because that day in East Lansing, against their bitterest foe, they left the field without a victory.’ It’s hard to decide which is more wrong-headed: the determination to beat the Vietcong at any cost – and just how did they become America’s ‘bitterest foe’? – or the analogy between the Cold War and a university football league.

An acolyte of the colonel’s has a clearer sense of things when he says to Skip a couple of years later: ‘So we lose this war, so what? Will the little kiddies of America be going to Uncle Ho High School . . . ? Will Charlie be raping our women in the streets? Fuck no . . . Win or lose, we’re gonna be fine. But we’re here . . . So why the fuck not? The all-important underlying reason is: “Fuck it, let’s just do it.”’ This more or less coincides with the view of Bill Houston’s brother James, who lies about his age and joins the army when he’s 17, because being broke in a small town in the Arizona desert doesn’t offer anything better:

James slid himself along the bench to the end of the carrier and ventured to look out at the Vietnam War – rain dripping from gigantic leaves, deformed vehicles, small people – the truck gearing down, engine bawling, mud boiling under the big tyres – barefoot pedestrians stepping away from the road, brown faces passing, rut after rut after rut, the beer lurching in his stomach.

He and two other new recruits are taken straight to a strip bar, where they’re entertained by a woman who calls herself ‘Virgin’. ‘Virgin lay back, the bed supporting only her head and shoulders, her high heels planted on the floor, her torso gyrating to the rhythms of “Barbara Ann”, and they all sang along . . . God almighty, some part of him prayed, if this is war let peace never come.’ At the end of his tour, 12 months patrolling a mountain from which Colonel Sands is directing his maverick operation against the Vietcong’s labyrinth of tunnels, 12 months without seeing any real action, James signs on for another year. A month later, the NVA and Vietcong launch the Tet Offensive, the turning point of the war and the centrepiece of Johnson’s novel.

It’s in the second half of the book that the continuities between the Vietnam War and the ‘war on terror’ become increasingly clear, and a question that may have been lurking at the back of the reader’s mind – ‘Why write a Vietnam novel now?’ – is, if not exactly answered, then at least shown to be a foolish question. ‘Do you remember how we used to mark time as since JFK’s assassination,’ the colonel remarks to Skip, ‘and now it’s since Tet?’ A similar change has taken place in the last few years, as Ground Zero has moved from the site of the World Trade Center to Iraq; that Tree of Smoke has won the National Book Award is surely a symptom of the shift in public opinion. ‘If he’s not with us, he’s against us,’ the colonel says later in the same conversation. ‘Let’s just assume that about everybody.’ ‘Uncle Ho won’t catch us sleeping!’ another CIA man says in 1969. ‘We are absolutely thoroughly prepared for one year ago.’ He could almost be talking about the Patriot Act and the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. ‘Hard data collected by the officer in the field slows down as it trickles up the chain,’ the colonel once wrote in an unpublished article for Studies in Intelligence, ‘and eventually finds itself stalled by considerations as to its impact . . . until command finds a need for it as justification for political policy.’ The phantom of Tony Blair, brandishing his dodgy dossier, shimmers into sight.

Tree of Smoke puts the Vietnam War more explicitly in the context of the wars that went before it. The defining moments of the colonel’s life were his capture by the Japanese in Burma in December 1941 and his escape in February 1942. Skip’s father was killed at Pearl Harbor. In the Philippines, where the novel begins, children shout ‘chez, chez, chez’ when they see Westerners because ‘their parents used to ask the GIs for matches.’ The children ‘don’t know what it means’, but they carry in more ways than they can understand the legacy of the war that their parents experienced. The German assassin is the son of a Nazi: ‘Old Father,’ he thinks, ‘you fought the Communists, and I fight them too.’ If we are to make sense of a war, even the wrong kind of sense, it must be in relation to the wars that surround it.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, considering its size, Tree of Smoke is an uneven novel. It’s often overwritten, and parts of it are very slow, with too much theoretical writing: too many long quotations from the colonel’s article for Studies in Intelligence, from J.P. Dimmer’s ‘Observations on the Double Agent’, from books by Antonin Artaud that Skip finds in the villa of a dead French doctor, too many troubled interior monologues about God, predestination and the afterlife. Such anxieties are better addressed obliquely, better dramatised than expounded.

On the other hand, there are wonderfully lyrical descriptions of such unlyrical activities as Bill Houston’s ‘duties as night clean-up man’ at Tri-City Redimix in Tempe, and spare, honest observations of characters’ responses to the death and horror surrounding them: ‘James hadn’t known Bakers too well. Gratitude and love filled him that Bakers had eaten it instead of one of the others. Especially himself.’ The sustained account of the build-up to an assassination attempt on a Vietcong defector who’s become more trouble for the CIA than he’s worth, intercutting between the perspectives of the killer and his target, is skilfully done, as well as containing two fine sentences on grief: ‘A few days later sorrow attacked him again as he realised the old man was still dead. As if some part of him had believed his father could die and later one could visit him and talk about it.’

The narrative occasionally, as here, assumes the point of view of non-American characters – the German assassin, the Vietcong defector, the colonel’s Vietnamese pilot – as well as that of the dead Canadian’s Calvinist widow, Kathy Jones, who has an intermittent and mutually unsatisfying relationship with Skip; but Tree of Smoke is overwhelmingly concerned with white American men, and the ways in which they are ruined by war. Returning home to a home that’s no longer there, the Houston brothers drift in and out of dead-end jobs, marriages, alcoholism, hostels, fights, prison. For Johnson, innocence is both a state of mind that never existed and one that is doomed to be lost over and over again. A glimpse of the Stars and Stripes in 1965 calls up for Skip

the sense-memories of the summers of his childhood, the many Kansas summers, running the bases, falling harmlessly onto the grass, his head beating with heat, the stunned streets of breezeless afternoons, the thick, palpable shade of colossal elms, the muttering of radios beyond the windowsills, the whirring of redwing blackbirds, the sadness of the grown-ups at their incomprehensible pursuits, the voices carrying over the yards in the dusks that fell later and later, the trains moving through town into the sky. His love for his country, his homeland, was a love for the United States of America in the summertime.

Twenty years later he’s on death row in Malaysia for gun-running.

In the epilogue, the novel jumps ahead to 1983. In February, shortly after the 15th anniversary of the Tet Offensive, President Reagan declared that 1983 would be the ‘Year of the Bible’. It was also the year in which the UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons came into force. Protocol III forbids the use of incendiaries such as napalm against civilian populations. America didn’t sign it.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences