Unending puzzles and pillories and the futility of salvation in Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke


To begin talking about Tree of Smoke, Denis Johnson’s most famous novel to date, one needs clarity of thought more than things to say, an incisive judgment more than an affluence of words, earned reflections more than noted quotations.

700 pages of blood (in paperback)

If I try to be terse here, I see little difficulty. To do so in talking about Tree of Smoke would be as easy as stating that it is yet another “postmodern” work stuffed with multiple characters caught in several, not necessarily connected subplots, inviting the seeming convenience of that tag which eases the readers of the pressure of getting something out of the work after they read it. On the other hand, in an attempt to be straightforwardly encompassing, one can say that this novel about Vietnam War, more than probing the political factors that surround the war and taking a position with regard to it, talks about the disillusionment and lost of spirit experienced by the people during that infamous war and in the end, subtly suggests heading on after all offenses have been made and all settlements have been arranged.

There are two major subplots here: first, that of Skip Sands and his prominent uncle Colonel Francis Sands and their psychological operations during the war and the Houston Brothers, Bill and James, and how they spent separate military services in the war. There is no task to be designated as a tall one here, for fiction to take a huge historical juncture such as the Vietnam War as its topic, its setting, and its inspiration simultaneously; the issue is less of tasks but, as always, creativity. Perhaps no one should expect Johnson’s novel to attempt to limn the war immaculately. While “factual” documentaries which more vocally claim to attempt and do just this can be imputed with several biases and temporal and spatial differences that naturally already distort the events as they happened, fiction can do better by not trumpeting such claims to truth and focus instead on arguably a more challenging and engaging task: rewrite a past event and render it available to the future generations either merely for their textual consumption or the eventual change in their views about themselves and the world.

To begin, there are little, interesting aspects of the novel which struck me personally as a reader. Being a Filipino, I was both delighted and slightly surprised to see Filipino “elements” in the novel. For one, the opening scene of the novel was in the Philippines and many more to come. There were also Filipino characters; most significant of them is General Eddie Aguinaldo. The scenes in the Philippines also paved the way for particular customs and beliefs in the country to be included, the belief on “aswang” being the most remarkable in the novel. In one scene, General Aguinaldo was talking about seeing “a throng outside the market, beating an old woman and crying, “Aswang! Aswang!” which prompted the German who was with him and Skip to utter, “These people are like demented children” (48). Definitely, Johnson did not become a mere storyteller here, hell no one can limit the act of telling a story to be just such an act. Even in these fragments of Filipino lifestyle and culture which Johnson’s characters remark about, Johnson is already lending an image of this culture to his readers. In the case of Vietnam and Malaysia as well, two other South East Asian countries where scenes in the novel took place, Johnson is apparently attributing a recurring idea: the quest of miracles, the seemingly petty circus-like passing of every day, and implicitly, the Third World mentality that motivates such hullabaloo an American can only ruminate shallowly about or tacitly ridicule.

Lastly on this “Filipino-ness” in Tree of Smoke, it just made me joyous to see words and phrases like “maraming salamat po,” “Tamis Anghang Banana Catsup” and “posporo” written in this novel. These words are undeniably part and parcel of Filipino culture  and seeing them in the novel made me think of the kind of immersion or research Johnson did while working on this novel.

This is just one of the many things about the novel that made it grip me like there should be no going, this among other things: James Houston’s happy nights at the Purple Bar, Kathy and Skip’s bridled humanizing affair in the midst of all disheartening events in Vietnam, Bill Houston’s eventual resignation to meaning and redoing what John Updike’s Sammy did in A&P (“In his heart – as with high school – he’d quit this job on the first day but saw nowhere else to go” (313)). But on top of it all is the classic problem of reality and appearances and how this gets even more complex and traumatizing in a situation like the Vietnam War. The North and South are bickering with their armors and guns; the Socialist forces are implicated and the US joined in the fray; within every armed force, there were double agents complicating issues of trust and faith to supposed comrades and the entire cause of the battle; in the end, everyone and everything seemed to be fated to die and die unremarkably, all humans and ideals buried deep down the quagmire of Vietnam and all human weaknesses it covers – no escaping such ordain, no salvation to hope for. And in the words of the Colonel, “in the end we’re dirt. Let’s face it our whole civilization is a layer of sediment” (27).

If you have think of words, put them here: On Vietnam War

For the last century that has been largely marked by a number of wars (international and civil) and which eventually became the key junctions in that century, Vietnam War is arguably the biggest of all. Not so much for impact since the countries involved here are definitely less than in the case of the two World Wars, but for its outcome – the loss of steadying global power of America. I myself obviously was not there and it was only through history textbooks, documentaries and fictional works where I can transport myself to the skin and heart of the war. But being informed of the present socio-economic arrangements around the world, it is intriguing to look back at Vietnam War and how the entire thing happened; most notably, how America suffered from the defeat, how did the North Vietnam forces outhustled and outsmarted their Southern counterparts and their American friends. Given America’s continual intervention and latent occupation of still several countries in the world today, it appeals to my curiosity how they faced a shameful defeat in Vietnam and what did their antagonists did to achieve the feat.

Interestingly, I also had the vaguest of ideas about Vietnam War and this was not something imposed by my pressing thoughts on the storied-ness of things and the perpetual persistence against the totality of experience. Perhaps my history lessons of the past should be damned but I was not afforded a much earlier chance to vicariously experience and reflect on the Vietnam War. And with Johnson’s Tree of Smoke, the themes were rather not unexpected: disillusionment, the crumbling down of appearances previously regarded as reality, and the ensuing test of faith and pining for higher orders, like truth, like salvation.

At the heart of this novel are deception operations, double agents, one gods yet different administrations and breaking chains of command that can easily make one terribly unsure of himself and the motivations of his actions in his surroundings. In the midst of a searing war, allegiances were blurred, personalities were a puzzle, if not downright anonymous, and most of all, everything – pacts, trusts, lives – is ephemeral. Colonel Sands is renowned in his field, but in order to be like that, he had to devise psychological warfare code-named Tree of Smoke and essentially cut himself out of the chain of command. And his nephew, Skip, was put on his side that acted as a double agent to sponge information from suspicious people. Eventually, the Colonel died, or did not, but in any case, he had been turned into a myth — at least in the mind of Skip, –just like all of the things that put them in Vietnam at the first place.

This novel is in-your-face tragic debilitating, one that shows you events while only revealing more gaps, more hidden gaps, more piquing unknowns. With much kick and force, it is a novel that consciously teases you of the high likelihood that what you see is not exactly what you get, so do not be too attached, do not fall right away to the words on the page. Here are classic lines where Johnson seems to intensify and calls attention to the supposed reality-dream, reality-appearances dichotomy:

“Sooner or later the mind grasps at a thought and follows it into the labyrinth, one thought branching into another. Then the labyrinth caves in on itself and you find yourself outside. You were never inside – it was a dream”(36).

This was Sergeant Storm saying something Skip just recalled:

“We’re on the cutting edge of reality itself. Right where it turns into a dream” (291).

Then back in Manila, while with Eddie Aguinaldo, Andres Pitchfork and Skip, the Colonel uttered, perhaps nonchalantly, perhaps as a matter-of-fact,

“War is ninety-percent myth anyway, isn’t it?” (61).

The reality-dream thing is something that may have gone oversold but that does not diminish one bit the validity of the claim, especially in an arena where nationality and color and other preexisting category are shed off, friends and foes are only categories that re only conditional (“But Hao – enemy or ally? Trung doubted he would ever know.” (554) and danger and eventual death both can come from virtually anywhere.

As the flimsiest of consolations go: love, lusts, lost hopes

In the thick of all tensions from within and without, creeping all over the bodies and souls of each character whose personalities and goals and motivations are ever nebulous and problematic, there are only a few things that can go as far as comforting.

With Skip, he found that in Kathy Jones, volunteer for the International Child Relief Effort and then the World Children’s Services, and his eventual spiritual and sexual partner. They met first in the Philippines and then in South Vietnam where we can assume Skip was already haunted by the things happening to him (soon, his mother will die), he said this to her: “You’re a goddamn relief. You’re making everything go away.” And then things occurred to him, and things happened. It occurred to Skip that “one person on this Earth had become known to him,” and then they slept together side by side and he would never see her again after that night, and he never really saw her again after that night. And to me that is one of the more heart-breaking things to happen in this novel. This scene, and how it became the last where Skip and Kathy were together. For in the succeeding phases of utter cluelessness and faithlessness, there were alone when they could have each other to stare at.

That ended 1968 and the meat of the novel is upcoming, more deaths, more revelations of mysteries, more falling down to purposelessness, to reeking bumness.

By 1970, both Bill and James got into jail, idly, despondently waiting for things to be done, waiting for an end, for the end to redeem them from the agonizing, seemingly pointless continuum where they find themselves. After the Vietnam War and their little exposures within it, not much has changed. They are back in their old life, only much scarred and much jaded.

And how did Johnson end it for Skip. Skip was supposed to be hung, but Johnson did not lead us into that. He take us a peek instead, at the letters Skip sent to Kathy, where perhaps for the last time, he recalled his unwieldy life fraught with aliases and deceptions  and cover-ups and ceaseless anxiety and the corresponding need for a continuing faith. And yes, he said he believed he loved Kathy, and yes, he would affirm, that “in the end of shifting allegiances, I managed to I betrayed everything I believed in” (694).

Amidst everything that has collapsed, Kathy would accompany us to the last sequence of the novel, in the MacMillan fashion show somewhere in America, where she read Skip’s letter before she gave her speech in the program. She would recognize some people in the event, people who were with her in the evacuation flight out of Saigon, when her leg got broken. And as Ms. Rand recalled the crash eight years ago, Kathy could not help but confront the images and memories presenting themselves to her again, and in the drift of her thought, while preparing for her own remark, she would only break our hearts with a seemingly vigorous hopefulness that can only dissolve in the actual harshness of the world. These last lines are what Johnson left us with her novel, and I believe these are the same lines I will leave here – where all incongruities and tragedies and back-breaking, faith-shattering circumstances can be recompensed with, not even in terms of actuality, even just in terms of thought, even just in the thinnest membranes of the mind:

“She sat in the audience thinking – someone here has cancer, someone has a broken heart, someone’s soul is lost, someone feels naked and foreign, thinks they once knew the way but can’t remember the way, feels stripped of armor and alone, there are people in this audience with broken bones, others whose bones will break sooner or later, people who’ve ruined their health, worshipped their own lies, spat on their dreams, turned their backs on their true beliefs, yes, yes, and all will be saved. All will be saved. Al will be saved.”

Here is our ghost.
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