5 tips for reading Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke


Because you know you should.

bought Tree of Smoke at The Strand three years ago and it’s been straight loungin’ in my apartment ever since. Despite loving Jesus’s Son—Johnson’s  1992 short-story collection—I somehow couldn’t muster the energy to dive into TOS until it was selected by my book club last month. This novel is long and about Vietnam and…long, so the bigger your support network the better. After all, book clubs were made for these situations; they’re basically voluntary homework for adults. 

While it’s not strictly necessary, it was hugely helpful for me to read up on Vietnam before getting into TOS. I’m not saying you should do enough research to like… write a thesis or anything. Just take 10 minutes to refresh your memory of the basics, the CliffsNotes—who was fighting whom and why, or, you know, “why.” Then clear your search history. 

It’s hard to keep track of everyone in TOS at first, and the similarity of their names doesn’t help. There’s the colonel, aka Francis Xavier Sands, a charismatic and widely known former air force pilot, now head of psychological operations at the CIA. His nephew, William “Skip” Sands, is a CIA agent with Psy Ops who finds himself his uncle’s unwitting lackey overseas. Then we have Bill Houston and James Houston, brothers who serve in Vietnam (James as a marine, Bill in the Navy). And Jimmy Storms, another Psy Ops operative. …I mean, I understand that there were like eight male names in circulation in the ’30s- ’50s, but c’mon. Throw me a Frank or a John at least! (Bonus tip: The TOS Wikipedia entry has a helpful character list.)

Johnson is a phenomenal linguist—”efficient” is the word someone in my book club used— and TOS never intentionally wastes word. When the colonel is pontificating, he’s verbose and bombastic, but the rest of the novel can be almost spare, a studied minimalism that ends up saturating every sentence with information and/or elegance. (“He rushed through an hour like a physical thing, a hallway.” “We in Purgatory sing fondly of Hell.” “She had nothing in this world but her two hands and her crazy love for Jesus, who seemed, for his part, never to have heard of her.”) Because the occasional speed of the narrative belies the importance of each paragraph, I found myself reading scenes over again to fully comprehend everything that went down. It’s a little time-consuming, but well worth the effort.

Once this book finds its flow—or at least once I felt comfortable identifying everyone in its ensemble cast—TOS is lovely, but it’s also dark and bleak, as much a missive on the nature of humanity as it is on the nature of war (not that they’re unrelated). It seems no mistake that Johnson wrote it during the Iraq War, and the parallels are obvious while not being overstated, or directly stated at all. TOS is timeless, a novel whose message could be applied at almost any point in history and will, sadly, most likely continue its tenure of relevance in the future. (Bonus tip: Have fewer wars.)

Despite early similarities, this is no Catch-22, a book that flirted with the comically absurd while still being caustic about warmongering. TOS does have some levity, most often in its instances of banter—”My leg deserted,” says an amputee, “so I followed the example.”—but even the rare lighthearted moments live to serve a greater message. Which is that war is a fucked-up thing, a thing that separates its participants from the rest of society—physically, mentally, financially, psychologically, and emotionally. A thing whose consequences are often conflated with its motives, whose effects are often confused for its causes. “War is ninety percent myth anyway, isn’t it?,” the colonels says early in the novel. “In order to prosecute our own wars we raise them to the level of human sacrifice, don’t we, and we constantly invoke our God. It’s got to be about something bigger than dying, or we’d all turn deserter.”


TITLE: Tree of Smoke
AUTHOR: Denis Johnson
PAGES: 703 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: Jesus’s Son, The Laughing Monsters
SORTA LIKE: Heart of Darkness + Apocalypse Now + Redeployment
FIRST LINE: “Last night at 3:00 a.m. President Kennedy had been killed.”

One thought on “5 tips for reading Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: